Exponent of Expression: Maestro Mariusz Smolij

European Conductor Guides the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra Upon a Musical Holiday Excursion on December 8th

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Local Music,   From Issue 819   By: Robert E Martin

26th November, 2015     0

As The Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra continues the musical odyssey of its 80th anniversary with a season built around performances featuring guest conductors - each with distinctive attributes - that are being considered for the position of permanent musical director to fill the role left by the departure of Maestro Brett Mitchell, preparations are busily underway for their annual holiday performance, which will feature conductor & violinist Mariusz Smolij, whom has assembled a program entitled Around the World at Christmastime that will be premiered on Tuesday, December 8th at 8:00 PM at Saginaw’s historic Temple Theatre.

Currently in his 9th year as Music Director of The Acadiana Symphony Orchestra in Lafayette, Louisiana; and in his 17th season as Music Director of The Riverside Symphonia in New Jersey, Smolij possesses an impressive track record that has led him to work with over 100 orchestras in 27 countries on five continents, often in some of the world’s most prestigious concert halls. Functioning in many ways as a ‘Musical Ambassador’, he has introduced many American audiences to several unknown works by Eastern European composers, just as he equally performs relatively obscure American orchestral music for European audiences.

For his performance with the SBSO he will feature works ranging from the popular, such as Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker and Mel Torme’s The Christmas Song, to the little known, Mozart’s Exultate, Jubilate and Chase’s Around the World in Christmas Time, recently Smolij sat down with The Review to discuss his unique background, his vision for orchestral music in the modern world, and his upcoming guest holiday performance with the SBSO.

Because he was raised and received a majority of his education in Poland, Mariusz is quick to point out that despite the oppressive Communist system that controlled so many aspects of the Polish peoples’ existence at that time, he was fortunate to receive a top-notch musical education.   “I was selected at age 7 to attend a specialized music school that had a wonderful musical and non-musical curriculum,” he explains.   “I started playing violin at 7 and piano at 10. I also learned basic guitar riffs at the age of 15 and played in a Beatles cover band. I stayed in this very well designed government educational model until graduating with the degree of Master in Music and realized, quite early in my school years, that music is not only a great window to the world, both to inside and outside of my country, but also a very special tool of communication.”

“I was fortunate to join the violin section of the premier Polish symphony orchestra (Polish National Radio and TV Symphony) in my home on of Katowice at age of 19,” he continues.  “At the same time I founded a chamber group, which few years later became an internationally recognized ensemble called the Penderecki String Quartet. With this ensemble I was able to come to the United States where I continued my life and musical journey. I decided to defect to this country and with $150 in my pocket started my “American Dream.” Several years later, I received a Doctoral Degree in orchestral conducting from the Eastman School of Music and since that time have conducted over 110 orchestras in 27 countries on five continents.”

When asked the most challenging component involved with assembling a Christmas performance, Mariusz references the vast departure involved between regular orchestral programs & pop concerts to holiday performances.

“The theme is obvious and the audience expects to be brought into a "holiday spirit" by enjoying their favorite selections,” he notes. “Each of us, however, has a little different view on what type of music best represents the holidays, and the audience often consists of loyal subscribers expecting a good symphonic presentation that is also mixed with patrons who come to hear the orchestra only because of the Christmas theme, sometimes for the first time. The challenge for the conductor is to program repertoire that will satisfy a wide gamut of expectations, maintain the high artistic integrity of the orchestra and at the same time, be simply enjoyable and fun for all.”

“My program in Saginaw aims at balancing all of the above expectations by providing a variety of traditional favorites mixed with some music that might be approaching the Christmas theme from a slightly different angle. I hope that the audience will enjoy “a happy serving" of traditional tunes from the Nutcracker or Sleigh Ride and excerpts from the Messiah. The works that are less conventional include, among others, an excerpt from C. Saint-Saȅns' opera "Samson et Dalila". It features music that takes us to the place and times during which the Biblical story that we are celebrating took place. I believe that the timbre and the atmosphere of the Middle East created by the composer is quite unique and the audience will also find the rhythmic drive quite exuberating”

“Together with the orchestra, I will also present a collection of melodies associated with Christmas celebration in the Russian Easter Orthodox Church and a suite of Negro-Spirituals. The program also features a traditional Sicilian Christmas song and medley of carols and holiday tunes from Germany, Poland, England, Italy and France - all together justifying the concert's title "Christmas Around the World".

Smolij states that he also believes the key role of a conductor is to engage both the audience and the orchestra in mutually positive experience. “I call this a ‘musical journey’, starting with being the best possible advocate of each composer, I aim at delivering the musical narration, its energy, atmosphere, timbre, spirit and soul – right here and now. The live experience of musical artistic performance should be unlike anything else we experience in our daily routines.”

“The range of those emotions has no boundaries,” he elaborates. “It can be a short spontaneous laughter after the end of Anderson's Sleigh Ride or the most profound spiritual elevation while listening to the finale of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony. The ability of symphonic music to tell human stories; touch senses; elevate the spirit; travel to different times and places; connect with others and importantly, reconnect with ourselves - is truly unique. Being an advocate and performer of that art is a great privilege.”

When asked his own professional & personal highlights and triumphs experienced thus far in his career, Mariusz explains his feeling of good fortune to work with so many wonderful musicians spanning the globe. 

“I am always exploring new ways of artistic collaborations, new forms of presentations and new repertoire,” he explains.  “I am equally proud of all the professional CDs I recorded and produced for Naxos, that feature works of previously little known composers, as well as of the previously unheard off collaborations featuring Cajun and Zydeco musicians. I am equally satisfied with many of the large opera productions or concerts at Carnegie Hall I led, as I am with the response I received after a small orchestra series such as “Martini and Mozart” that I conducted in small local halls and bars.”

“As a conductor I have been trying to present, to the best of my abilities, the great heritage library of musical masterworks that are the foundation of our art. At the same time, I have been trying to pair Baroque with The Beatles or Shostakovich with Jimi Hendrix to create an interest and relevance of orchestral music to new audiences.”

“I am very excited about my upcoming visit to the Saginaw and working with the orchestra,” he concludes.  “I am looking forward to learning more about the area and meeting with many members of the community. Unlike the other candidates for the Music Director position, I will not have a chance to work on and to present the mainstream, typical symphonic repertoire.”

“There was, however, rarely anything typical in my musical journey so far, and I hope that the bare 150 minutes that I will be able to work with the orchestra prior to our concert will be as good a beginning and "initial investment" for our future collaboration as the $150 that I had with me when starting my American journey some years ago!”

Tickets for ‘Around the World at Christmastime’ with The Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra can be purchased by going to www.saginawbayorchestra.com or phoning the Temple Theatre Box Office at 989-755-6471.  The performance takes place at 8:00 PM on Tuesday, December 8th.




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