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October 3, 2000

Newsmaker Interview with Scott Speck

The following interview with Scott Speck, Mobile Symphony's music director/conductor, was conducted last week via email.

Harbinger: Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?

Speck: I was born in Boston and grew up there. Music has always been a part of my life -- my parents are both ardent lovers of classical music and both studied instruments when they were kids. My mother has sung in choruses recently, and my father, an orthodontist by profession, is a really good jazz clarinetist on the side. I studied music at Yale, and then on a Fulbright Scholarship to Berlin, Germany; and I received my Master's Degree in Conducting from the University of Southern California. Ever since then I've been employed as a conductor, in such far-flung places as Honolulu, Maryland, Savannah and Alabama. It's been a wonderful time, and I feel that I've been very lucky.

Harbinger: What are some of your goals for your first year as the musical director/conductor of the Mobile Symphony?

Speck: As you know, this orchestra is quite young. From what I hear, every concert is better than the last. The reason for this is that the musicians are getting used to playing together, and they have developed a common sound. I want to see how far the musicians and I can take that sound. I would like to develop an even stronger group instinct, so that the orchestra really functions as one organism, breathing and listening and playing as one. That's the characteristic of the world's best orchestras, and my dream is to create that here.

In the short term, the thing that can help this happen the most is an acoustical shell. Later this season we hope to install a top-notch, custom-made acoustical shell in the Saenger -- and it will really enhance our sound. I think the audience will be able to hear the difference instantly. It's one of the many steps we're taking toward playing music on absolutely the highest level. This is the big time.

On a different front, I'm working with our wonderful staff to develop our Education Program. We have taken on a youth orchestra this year for the first time, and we'd like to see that program expand. We're also trying to find a way to provide music lessons to kids who currently don't have access to them in their schools. I dream of a time when any kid in the Mobile area who wants to study a musical instrument will have the opportunity to do so.

Besides these major goals, there are many very small goals that I hope will add up to a feeling of enormous progress over the next year or two.

Harbinger: Attracting a new audience, particularly younger listeners, is one way to sustain support for symphony/classical music. How do you plan to attract a new and/or younger audience in Mobile?

Speck: Well, one of the things I love about this organization is that we think long-term. In the long run, the way to attract young listeners is to develop a love of classical music among young people. That's the goal of our Education Program. It's clear that the greatest orchestra supporters are those who had direct contact with the music-making experience as kids.

Beyond that, programming can make a big difference. This orchestra has a short history, but it's a history of risk-taking on many fronts. We've found that the audience does not automatically shy away from modern music, and that's a wonderful and unusual thing. There's a whole lot of modern music out there that's beautiful, lyrical, passionate and moving. So we will experiment a bit with some really interesting pieces written within the last century. And I hope that will begin to attract some more younger listeners.

On the whole, though, I feel that as this orchestra grows and improves, people will begin to see it as an essential part of the cultural fabric of Mobile. Obviously lots and lots of people see that already. But I want everyone in the city, when they're asked what's great about Mobile, to put the Symphony at the top of their list!

Harbinger: Who inspired you to pursue your career in classical music, in particular, of being a conductor?

Speck: I often think that what inspired me to pursue classical music was the sound of certain orchestras. I grew up in Boston, and I can't remember a time when I didn't hear the Boston Symphony. That orchestra has a beautiful elegant sheen to it -- it used to be called "The Aristocrat of Orchestras." Then, later, when I was studying in Berlin, I had the opportunity to sing in the chorus of the Berlin Philharmonic, which I consider to be the best orchestra in the world. That group has an incredibly rich sound, and it really plays as one person. I found this to be incredibly impressive. I think hearing these sounds when I was young -- and wanting to recreate them elsewhere -- was a large part of wanting to become a conductor.

Harbinger: Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, this reporter worked in West Berlin and met many American classical musicians working there because of the scarcity of opportunities/jobs in the U.S. Has the situation changed?

Speck: I don't know the statistics, but I do know that the jobs are still very scarce. The classical musician who can make a living solely by playing an instrument is a very lucky person. In a given year, the great conservatories of our country will graduate hundreds, perhaps thousands, of musicians with the potential to become world-class artists. But how many job openings are there for these musicians? Remarkably few. A couple of years ago, for example, there were only THREE openings for horn players in major orchestras. So it's a very difficult situation for classical musicians right now. One of the ways I hope to change this is by engendering such a love of music among the general population, that the demand for musicians can begin to match the supply. That's one reason why I wrote Classical Music for Dummies and Opera for Dummies. That's why I love to give talks on the radio and in the community. I hope that I'll be able to make a big difference. But I know it's going to take some time.

Harbinger: What advice would you give to young musicians just starting their training/career, in view of the scarcity of job opportunities?

Speck: This may sound strange coming from someone who has made music his life -- but for the vast majority of people, I would really advise against it. I tell people, if you have this incredible, overwhelming need to make music every day, day in and day out, no matter what sacrifices you may have to make, then go for it -- and you may very well be successful. But if you don't have that overwhelming drive, or if there's something else you could be happy doing, then do something else, and your life will be much easier.

Having said that, I went into music full-time, and I'm ecstatic. But I know from experience that I'm one of the lucky ones. I will always be grateful for what I've been able to do in this profession.


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