Violas sound like car horns on a city street. Notes from a bassoon linger in the air before they are swept away by trumpets and percussion during a performance of George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” by the Mobile Symphony Orchestra on the season’s opening night on September 13 at the Saenger Theatre in downtown Mobile.
Every jab and swoop of conductor Scott Speck’s baton has a purpose. His hands reach out of white cuffs and tuxedo sleeves motioning musicians to give more or back off. Speck smiles at soloists, bounces in his shiny black leather shoes, and jumps at musical moments of explosive release. The music shifts and changes with his every move as his body reflects the energy and emotion of the score.
Speck is beginning his 14th season as conductor and music director of the Mobile Symphony Orchestra (MSO). He grew up in Boston, graduated from Yale, received a Fulbright scholarship to study music in Berlin, founded an orchestra called Concerto Grosso Berlin, and graduated with a Master’s Degree in Conducting from the University of Southern California. He has conducted orchestras around the world from Paris, Moscow, and Shanghai, to Romania, and Beijing. He can speak or read five foreign languages including German, Italian, and Russian, and he co-wrote the best-selling book Classical Music for Dummies to explain classical music in ways that anyone can understand.
“My parents gave me great advice to figure out what you love and do what you would do if money is no object, and I followed that path,” says Speck. “I knew that I loved conducting when I started, but I wasn’t good at it and had to figure out how to become not just good, but superb at this.
“After my Fulbright Scholarship, I returned to Boston and took classes in all of the things I needed remedial work in like score reading at the piano, sight singing, and advanced rhythms. If I have one good trait, it is perseverance. I didn’t stop working on what I needed to learn until I was good enough.”
Speck’s parents were not professional musicians, but his dad played jazz clarinet, his mother played the marimba, and there was always classical music in his house. Speck started taking piano lessons when he was 6 years old and was a classical pianist for twenty years. Experimenting or training with trumpet, drums, and cello, helped him understand different instrument groups and what the players go through.
He describes his thirties as a lost decade in which he did almost nothing but study scores. He was the associate conductor fororchestras in Honolulu, Savannah and Birmingham. “It was a good time to learn the craft and the standard repertoire that every orchestra plays and I absorbed it all,” says Speck. “I am an omnivorous learner and it was a time to learn how history and the events of each period coincide with the stories of the music and the development of culture.”
The MSO was Speck’s first professional music director job and he appreciates the growth and development he and the symphony have made together. “Making music with the Mobile Symphony Orchestra is some of the most fun that I get to have as a musician,” says Speck. “There is already a sense of fun in the city and that is expressed in our rehearsals. I encourage that spirit of fun even in the most serious music we play. I want the musicians to feel personally invested and connected to each other. The orchestra that comes to meet me at the beginning of every season is more accomplished, more sensitive, more technically proficient, and more mature than the season before.”
When Speck began, the symphony was transitioning from a schedule filled with guest orchestras such as the Louisiana Philharmonic to building its own professional orchestra under the direction of Dr. Andrew Harper,Ph.D.
“We brought in guest conductors as part of the interview process and when Scott led us through Phillip Glass, we knew he was special and adventurous because Glass is as cool as you can get,” says violinist Tom Morley, an original member of the sypmphony. “Before Scott, we lacked the collective will to know our parts and be 100 percent ready. Scott changed that and now we could do a concert at our first rehearsal because we come prepared. Through the years, he has rewarded us by bringing in amazing soloists like Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman. Scott is now recognized for his work and is getting more and more high profile engagements around the country. We are proud of that, but we work hard to keep him here. “
Preparation begins a month before the performance when Speck gives out the music with background about the composer and the influences. “The fun begins when we put it together,” says Speck. “One of the things that interests me is the individuality that can come out of a collective orchestra. Everyone has their own conceptions of how their parts should go. They make fascinating tone colors and can bring sounds you aren’t used to hearing. Soloists decide the statements or impressions they want to make. But there are times such as rhythm in triplet quarters when the length of notes, the attack, and articulation have to be unanimous.”
Conducting a program starts with understanding the intentions of the composer who wrote the symphony. “Why did he write this piece? What was he thinking and what did he want? I think about that all the time,” Speck says. “I believe in a theme holding the music together. In March, we will play the life-affirming ‘Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny)’ by Johannes Brahms with ‘Death and Transfiguration’ by Richard Strauss.”
Speck has become more trusting of the musical process and his musicians. “I used to feel the need to direct every beat of the music, but now I know the musicians listen to each other, take up the rhythm together, and find the common pulse. My view has become more widescreen and I can concentrate on shaping large phrases.”
“I believe in understatement in conducting and only giving gestures that are helpful,” he says. “After rehearsal is finished and the symphony understands the pieces, the conductor should not have much work to do. In an orchestra like ours, if they don’t sound good, it is probably my fault. If they sound good it is because of them.”
Violinist Jenny Gregoire, concertmaster since 2001, says Speck is “demanding of himself and the orchestra in a professional and artistic way and we have grown musically under him. He holds music in high respect and expects us to do the same. He is always clear about what he wants in the way he conducts and he is willing to take suggestions and try something else if it will be better. He is beloved by the musicians and we all like to be together.”
In addition to his duties with MSO, Speck is the artistic director of the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra, and music director of the Joffrey Ballet, and West Michigan Symphony, but he says he is still not as good as he wants to be. “Claudio Abbado, Carlos Kleiber, Herbert Von Karajan are the most poetic conductors I’ve ever seen with a gift for gesture,” says Speck, “There was a flexibility and gracefulness in their body that allowed them to be above the rest. I dream of having that gift, but I always try to be true to myself because we all have different bodies and there is no imitating someone else. In conducting 101, I spent hours and hours in front of a video camera trying to make my gestures better. It was awkward for the first ten years.”
Classical music is an emotionally transcendental experience and Speck works to remove barriers and make the music available to everyone. “You have one hundred people working and sweating on stage and a glorious sound washes over you,” says Speck. “The experience of live music spreads without words and can bypass consciousness into subconscious in a way that words can’t. The classical music world shot itself in the foot in the 20th century trying to be elitist. The idea you have to dress a certain way, have certain financial background or education, or even color is an insult to all music stands for. We are trying to change that and reverse it. We are excited to help the next generation of musicians and virtuosos through our Preludes education program.”
Dorothy Morrison has been on the symphony board for 25 years and was on the committee that hired Speck. “The quality of music, the new acoustical shell, and the educational outreach that we have now is what we wanted to accomplish. Much of it happened with Scott. He has given us extraordinary experiences.”
Speck describes Mobile’s symphony audience as “intellectually curious and willing to be stretched.”
“We have been on this journey together,” he says. “Our audience is open-minded and they trust that they may not have heard a piece before, but by the time they hear it, they will like it. I can add pieces that challenge me, the musicians, and our audience.”
Early in his conducting career, putting on the tuxedo and standing in front of an audience was nerve-wracking, but now the support and love of the musicians and audience lifts him up.
“There are moments when everyone is connected and you feel time stands still,” he says. “We aren’t making the music, the music is making us as it goes out into the universe. I take time to reflect on that after the performance is over and the hall is empty. I look to the sky and say wow.”
The next symphony performance is Mad Men: Sinatra and The Pack on Saturday, October 11 at 8:00PM and Sunday, October 12 at 2:30 PM.
Photos by Stephanie Drake. Cover photo: Scott Speck and Benjamin Beilman0