Maestro Joel Smirnoff Shares His Journey as Conductor, Violinist and Educator

5/5 - (1 vote)

March/April 2024

This month, we are delighted to feature Joel Smirnoff, a distinguished Carmel resident, on our cover. Currently serving as a Principal Guest Conductor with the Carmel Symphony Orchestra, Smirnoff is celebrated as a conductor, violinist and educator. He holds positions at the Manhattan School of Music Precollege Faculty and The Juilliard School.

Beyond his classical pursuits, Smirnoff’s musical talent extends to jazz, with his improvisational solos featured on the Grammy Award-winning album “Tony Bennett Sings Ellington Hot and Cool.” He has also been honored as a guest soloist with Gunther Schuller and the American Jazz Orchestra, and the Billy Taylor Trio.

A NATURAL BORN MUSICIAN AND EDUCATOR

A native of New York City, Smirnoff was raised in a family deeply entrenched in music. Both of his parents were accomplished musicians, instilling in him a profound appreciation for the art form and shaping his musical journey from an early age.

“My father was a classically trained solo violinist and concertmaster for ‘The Perry Como Show’ for 12 years,” Smirnoff shared. “It was a very cool thing. I remember watching him on ‘The Perry Como Show,’ and we would all celebrate the fact he had been on TV. He was a wonderful quartet player … I was really bred to be a quartet player, in a sense. My mom was a bit of a showbiz kid and was on ‘Showboat’ on Broadway … not the original but a revival with Paul Robeson. She became a [professional] singer and was on the road with The Jack Teagarden Band when she was 16. Then she came back to New York and was very successful.”

Influenced by his family and teachers, Smirnoff’s education was deeply rooted in music during his primary and secondary school years. Smirnoff attended the University of Chicago, where he solidified his foundation in performing, initially in string quartets and later in jazz ensembles. Smirnoff’s illustrious career features a notable stint as President of the Cleveland Institute of Music from 2008 to 2015, where he held the esteemed Mary Elizabeth Callahan President’s Chair. Joining the renowned Juilliard String Quartet in 1986 as second violin, he later became its first violinist in 1997, succeeding Robert Mann. With the quartet, he performed globally, earning Grammy nominations for their exceptional recordings.

Beyond his quartet endeavors, Smirnoff boasts a prolific solo recording portfolio featuring world premiere renditions of 20th-century compositions by various composers. His exceptional contributions were duly acknowledged with a Lifetime Grammy Award in 2011 and the Alumni Professional Achievement Award from the University of Chicago, his alma mater.

Maestro Joel Smirnoff

What made Smirnoff’s experience in Chicago unique was his exposure to the acoustic guitar and harmonica-playing blues that originated from the Louisiana area and found its way to Chicago. Icons like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf were revered as heroes not only within their own community but also among the University of Chicago student body.

“We would go to the blues bars, and then eventually playing blues and R&B myself—that is something I would have never anticipated although I knew a lot about jazz,” Smirnoff said. “I had never really experienced what was really an extension of urban folk music, and it was something quite unique. It was a special and great time to be in [Chicago] … it was amazing.”

PERFORMING WITH LEGENDS

Inspired by Seiji Ozawa in the early ’90s to explore the realm of conducting, Smirnoff ventured into this domain with remarkable success. Making his American conducting debut in 2000 with the San Francisco Symphony, he has since wielded the baton with finesse, leading orchestras worldwide. In addition to his classical pursuits, Smirnoff is a proficient jazz musician. He often collaborated as a soloist with the late Tony Bennett, with whom he shared a profound familial-like bond.

At 20, Smirnoff first encountered Tony Bennett while playing in the string section for his shows at the Palmer House in downtown Chicago. Smirnoff shared that unlike Frank Sinatra, whom he played behind once, Bennett didn’t exude the aura of showbiz; there was a seriousness about his approach, focusing solely on the music. Years later, at 27, Smirnoff had the opportunity to play first violin in a quartet for Bennett’s performances at the Drury Lane Theatre in Chicago.

Over two weeks, they meticulously rehearsed, selecting tunes that suited the intimate setting. Smirnoff shared how he witnessed Bennett’s legendary work ethic and how his soulful voice resonated deeply, bridging cultural divides. Bennett appreciated the musicians who contributed to his success, and Smirnoff expressed that he was honored to collaborate with him, learning and growing alongside a true maestro.

“I don’t think I ever called him ‘Tony,’” Smirnoff reflected. “I always called him ‘maestro’ because I was always so in awe of him. He was very appreciative of musicians, and I became someone he liked to be with on stage. He trusted me, and we’d talk about music. We worked on a CD project together for a while. I felt like all of that was such an honor, and it was thrilling.”

ENRICHING TWO COMMUNITIES WITH TALENT AND PASSION

Smirnoff continues to commute to New York to teach and elevate the next generation of classical musicians. Meanwhile, he enjoys his life in Carmel alongside his wife, who is also a musician and instructor. Currently, Smirnoff is contributing his expertise as a Principal Guest Conductor with the Carmel Symphony Orchestra. In particular, Smirnoff is assisting with programming for the regular concert series to better connect CSO’s programming with multicultural audiences while enhancing its jazz chamber music and themed programming.

Smirnoff concluded, “It’s all about community building, and I think what CSO is trying to become right now is very much that. I feel very lucky to be more involved with this orchestra. I think what’s happening here in Carmel with CSO is extremely exciting, and we have the flexibility of programming to serve the community, be extremely meaningful [to] the community, and set a standard in this way.”