Since his arrival in Mobile a decade ago, Scott Speck has assumed many roles: conductor, teacher, lecturer and face of the Mobile Symphony Orchestra. Each year he seems eager to take on new challenges and responsibilities, and that is certainly the case as he and the MSO enter the 2010-2011 season. Speck recently added another line to his resumé when he was named music director of the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. He will lead the Chicago Sinfonietta for each Joffrey performance during the company’s 2010-2011 “Stars” season. Speck was guest conductor during the Joffrey’s 2009-2010 season for the productions of “Othello” in the fall and “Cinderella” last winter.
His first performance in his new role will be the upcoming “All Stars” program Oct. 13-24 at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, according to a Joffrey news release. ArtBeat caught up with Speck via e-mail in Stockholm, Sweden, where he was conducting a concert of the chamber orchestra Musica Vitae with former MSO soloist Per Tengstrand. That program included Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals” — with Tengstrand’s wife and fellow pianist, Shan San Sun — along with Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings and Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” with David Chan, concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera. “My entire conducting life has embraced a marvelous cross-pollination between the symphonic and ballet worlds,” Speck says. “Some members of our audience might remember that Philip Glass’s ‘Funeral of Akhnaten’ was the first piece I ever conducted in Mobile, during my music director audition concert; this was a piece I learned while working with the San Francisco Ballet over a decade ago. “Over the past year it’s been a pleasure to conduct several productions for the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. What a stunning ensemble — they combine the best of classical dance technique with a really modern, individualistic sensibility. They don’t look like any other company I’ve ever seen. “I’ve known and respected the Joffrey’s artistic director, Ashley Wheater, since 1998 when both of us worked in San Francisco. It’s a thrill and an honor to have been appointed music director beginning with the current season.” Wheater has collaborated with Speck for many years, according to the news release. “I called on him last year to conduct the very complex score for Elliot Goldenthal’s ‘Othello,’ and both dancers and orchestra were extremely grateful for his involvement,” Wheater says.
“He is an accomplished musician, scholar and conductor. Even more importantly, he possesses a love for and an understanding of ballet. Music is at the heart of ballet. I am delighted that Scott will bring his great talents to the Joffrey.” Joffrey Ballet presents three main productions a year in addition to the annual “Nutcracker” run. “Each of these productions lasts about two weeks,” Speck says. “It’s been marvelous to see how well these productions mesh with my current conducting schedule. My commitments to the Mobile Symphony and my home here remain as strong as ever. I’m looking forward to many more great seasons in Mobile.” For information on Joffrey Ballet or Scott Speck, visit www.joffrey.org. Look for additional details on Speck and Mobile Symphony Orchestra on the Press-Register blog site: www.al.com/events/mobile. As to next weekend’s season-opening concerts in Mobile, Speck says the program includes three pieces either by Italians or about Italy. “We thought that putting them on the same program together would allow each to inform and color our perception of the others,” he says. “First is the Berlioz. His opera ‘Benvenuto Cellini’ tells the story of one of the greatest Florentine sculptors. The opera is a masterpiece, but the overture is almost always overlooked in favor of the more well-known ‘Roman Carnival Overture’ — the Mardi Gras parade in the middle of the opera. And in fact, we have never played the overture before in Mobile. “But there is much more to the opera than Mardi Gras. The opera itself is full of intrigue, romance, excitement and fun, and all of this comes across in the overture. I also think this overture makes a wonderful opening to our season — it starts the year with a flourish.”
Speck says people often think of Tchaikovsky as a composer “who wore his heart on his sleeve and wrote music of great expressive depth, pathos and lyricism.” “We don’t usually think of him as a composer of Italian street songs,” he says, “but Tchaikovsky was never so happy as when he was in Italy, and he wrote his ‘Capriccio Italien’ at a time of pure, carefree joy.
"We hear the trumpets at the army barracks near his hotel that woke him up every day. We hear a street song or two, and we hear a wild tarantella of such raucous abandon that Tchaikovsky the Russian threatens to out-Italian the Italians. Mobile Symphony has never played this piece, and I think it’s about time. It’s also fitting for the celebratory opening concert of the season.” Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” is the “most Italian of the three pieces,” says Speck. “The composer himself was Italian and devoted a great deal of his creative energies to glorifying his native Rome in music. This piece depicts the pine trees that stand as sentinels before four great scenes of ancient and modern Italian life. “We hear kids happily playing at the Villa Borghese; we hear the voices of the dead pour from the ancient catacombs; we hear the Nightingale sing in the forest. Most impressive of all is the movement called ‘The Pines of the Appian Way,’ which depicts ancient Roman soldiers returning victorious from battle, with brass blazing from all corners of the hall.” The work always has been a showpiece for the great orchestras, according to Speck. “For Mobile Symphony, it’s both a showpiece and a milestone. We first performed this piece at the very end of my first season in Mobile, and it will be a pleasure to hear how the orchestra has grown and developed since then. It’s not often that we repeat a work here at the MSO, but when we do it’s because I feel that the orchestra has something new to say about it. We have a lot of new colors and sounds to lend to Respighi’s masterwork, and I can’t wait!” The concerto on this concert is special because of the soloist, Jenny Grégoire, the orchestra’s longtime French-Canadian concertmaster, and soloist for this concert. “When planning the season, I thought that this concerto would be great for Jenny,” he says. “For the lyricism that flows from her violin, for the technical challenges (that) suit her technique and for the temperament, which is both Romantic and French. “Saint-Saens was an extremely facile composer, a musical chameleon, and his works often echo the styles of his contemporaries. I am really looking forward to making music with Jenny and the orchestra in this piece.” All in all, says Speck, next weekend’s program is designed to welcome the audience back to the concert hall. “We’ve all been away doing other things for the summer,” he says, “and now we bring the music from abroad — in this case, Italy and France — back to Mobile. We’re preparing the concert in a spirit of joy, relaxation and fun. I hope our audience feels as refreshed and joyous in hearing it as we do in playing it.” Information on the Sept. 11-12 concerts and the MSO season is available at www.mobilesymphony.org.
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