CMB Artist Interview: 10 Questions for Mark Smith

Tell us about yourself. Where were you born and how did your musical journey start?

I was born in Liverpool, the youngest of five children and was raised in Nottingham where we lucky to have had a fantastic County Music School. My eldest brother is very musical and played violin in the youth orchestra. One afternoon, the entire orchestra arrived at our house (I know not why) and as I stood watching them all come in carrying their various oddly-shaped cases, there came a chap carrying the strangest looking case I had ever seen, it was sort of circular and had bits sticking out of it. 

Mark Smith

My brother caught me staring at it and kindly asked its owner to show me what was inside. It was a horn, of course but I had never seen one before. He showed me how it was played and asked me if I wanted to have a go. According to my brother, I produced a perfect note first time. This is so unlikely to have been the case that I think it can only be him being kind! 

What was your first experience of playing chamber music? 

The first experience that I can concretely recall was playing in a wind quintet at the Music School. I LOVED it! 

What makes the ideal chamber music group for you? What do you look for in your chamber music partners?

Mixed ensembles, strings, winds, piano, harp, percussion……….. the more variety the better. The thing that really makes the group is the people. Taking artistic and technical expertise as a given, it is the mindset that matters more than anything else. It is a very special mix of attributes, imagination, discipline, vision, flexibility, energy, curiosity, breadth of interests, courage and perhaps most important of all, a robust and generous sense of humour!

Who or what were the biggest influences in becoming the musician you are today? 

It is difficult to point to just one or two as it really is the summation of the whole experience of music-making and recognising that some powerful influences can come from the most unlikely sources. With the benefit of hindsight, I think I am most grateful for a church choirmaster called David Yelland who set me on the path to discovering my own love of music. As a student, I had a wonderful experience at the Britten Pears School playing “The Rape of Lucretia” under the baton of Steuart Bedford who showed me what was possible if I could just find the discipline in myself. And along the way, so many wonderful fellow musicians whom I have been privileged to have worked with have all contributed to what I think I know or understand. I am especially grateful to the violinist, Adam Summerhayes, who showed me that I can laugh at myself!

How has the pandemic affected – or even changed you – as an artist? 

I have been fortunate to have remained active in a number of fields and am immensely grateful for this. Nevertheless, it has been hard to be away from the regular connection with live music-making and at times I have felt very alone. The time has allowed some perspective on it all and I recognise just how important it is to me and how valuable music and culture is for us all. I have used the time to study, develop my playing, to do more arranging and to learn a language.

Which new skills have you picked up over the last year?

Probably the most obvious thing is that I have learned to work online, teaching, coaching ensembles and even running an online orchestra. This has involved re-thinking a lot of things and through this I think I have understood more about how these activities function and my interaction with students and colleagues – not just online. 

Performing artists have had very few opportunities to actually perform live in front of an audience over the last year. Do you think the lack of ‘match fitness’ will affect you when you’re back on stage?

I don’t feel “match unfit”. I have managed to maintain a trickle of concert activities through this last year and have not found myself to be any more rusty than I usually am! I have maintained my regular practice regime throughout, mindful that we never really stand still, we either progress or stagnate and I think that I have managed to keep pushing myself forwards.

How do you feel about online concerts? 

Online working is becoming a norm alongside face-to-face interaction and it follows that we should embrace this carving out a meaningful scheme for presenting music in this way.

If you had to introduce someone who’s never listened to chamber music before to the genre, which piece would you play them and why? 

This is SO hard to answer. It depends entirely on the person concerned. In general, I would think of pieces that are immediately engaging and are not too demanding upon the listener. Pieces that come mind are: Ravel String Quartet, Jean Michel Damase 17 Variations for wind quintet.

Which piece do you think should definitely feature on a ChamberMusicBox programme as soon as possible?

Brahms Horn Trio and Clarinet Trio. Penderski Sextet, Jean Michel Damase 17 variations for wind quintet, Jean Francaix Octour, Brahms Serenade in D (13 Players)………………

Thank you! As a little bonus round, we have asked you to answer five questions from the Proust Questionnaire! Off you go!

What is your greatest fear?

That stupidy, bigotedness and ignorance will overrule wisdom, insight and humanity.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

My age! I would love to have another go, knowing what I think I now know. Oh, and I’d like to be much fitter!

Where would you most like to live?

Somewhere warm and sunny with mountains and sea, music, art, culture, good food and good company.

Who are your favourite writers?

Tennyson, Keats, Hardy, E.M.Forster, Deryck Cooke

What is your motto?

Keep smiling.

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