"Conducting is not at all like playing first fiddle in a quartet," says Joel Smirnoff, who's done both enough time to know. He became the Juilliard String Quartet's first violinist (replacing founding first chair Robert Mann, who held the job for 50 years) in 1997. And he's been conducting since Seiji Ozawa asked him to rehearse string sections at Tanglewood in 1993. He stepped down from the Juilliard Quartet this year to take another leadership position: president of the Cleveland Institute of Music. He hasn't conducted there yet, but he makes his Cleveland conducting debut this week in an all-Mozart concert with CityMusic Cleveland.
"The great secret no one wants you to know is that what looks like a great leadership position [first chair in a string quartet] is not that at all," says Smirnoff. "This is something I learned from Bob Mann. He was known as a great leader, but he was actually a great responder."
But whether it's a quartet or full orchestra, Smirnoff says the leader has to know when to take charge and when to back off. "You've got to know when your leadership is needed, and you've got to know when the orchestra is cooking and it's best to just stay out of their way."
Smirnoff made his official conducting debut in 2000, with the San Francisco Symphony. Since then — in addition to other professional ensembles — he's regularly conducted orchestras of young players, especially the Juilliard Orchestra and the New World Symphony (a training orchestra for conservatory graduates). That will be the case with the CityMusic orchestra, which draws many of its players from the ranks of CIM students.
Smirnoff came to conducting late in life, after he already had an established career as an orchestral and chamber player. He says that gives him an advantage over young conductors.
"So much of learning to conduct has to do with getting onstage," he says. "You can practice forever, but there comes a point when you've got to find out what your body is going to do when it is adrenalized and you are attempting to present the music of geniuses. It's like flying a plane. There is no substitute for flying time."
Smirnoff first met CityMusic executive director Eugenia Strauss in the early '90s, when he was performing in Erie with the Juilliard Quartet. She gave him a ride back to Cleveland to catch a plane. They hadn't spoken since, he says, but when he was appointed to his new job at CIM, their acquaintance led her to ask if he'd conduct.
He says he was initially considering "Christmas-y" music, but she prompted him to put together an all-Mozart program. His experience as a violinist shows in his approach. The program will begin with Sinfonia concertante in E Flat for violin and viola, which Smirnoff says is a favorite for violinists because most of Mozart's violin concertos were written when he was very young and don't show the kind of depth found in his later works.
"We have not been left with mature Mozart concerti the way pianists have," says Smirnoff. "The man stopped practicing the fiddle — to the great dismay of his dad — to focus on piano, operas, quartets and symphonies. The Sinfonia concertante gives an idea what he would have done in a mature violin concerto." The soloists are violinist Nathan Olson and violist Jessica Oudin.
Next on the program is the Divertimento No. 136, written when Mozart was just 16; it's one of those youthfully exuberant pieces for strings. The last thing audiences will hear is his upbeat Exsultate jubilate (written just a year later) with soprano Chabrelle Williams.
Smirnoff still hasn't been to many of the neighborhood churches that serve as CityMusic's venues, but he says he's looking forward to ensembles from CIM doing more performances around the community. He points to recent performances at MOCA Cleveland, and the school's relationships with public schools, churches and the Cleveland Museum of Art. "These are wonderful venues," he says. "There's going to be a lot more of this."