Monday, 15 February 2016

February Celebrity Soft Spot Ashley William Smith

Long-distance runner, ABC Young Performer winner (2010), lung expert, graduate from UWA, ANAM and the Yale School of Music, Ashley William Smith is one of Australia's most in-demand musicians. Ashley has already appeared on this blog as the winner of Performance of the Year at the 2015 Art Music Awards. But he is well worth a closer look and I hope you'll find his interview in this month's Celebrity Soft Spot as fascinating as I did. We will also get to hear him performing very soon at the Perth Festival Chamber Music Weekend.




What music gets your heart racing?

Quite literally, I use music to deliberately make my heart race! I’m an avid long distance runner and I use music at specific b.p.m. (beats per minute) in order to pace myself correctly. Some of my favourites for setting a tempo at the beginning of a run are Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians (which we are performing at UWA this year), or Philip Glass operas.. In very long runs, something like Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben gives me a whole program of tempos and keeps me going through the tough bits in a race.

What calms you down?

Surprisingly music doesn’t calm me down – it has the opposite effect of activating my mind. My ultimate way to de-stress and re-centre myself is to go for a run. We are so lucky in Perth to have both the river and the hills to run around. Sunshine and beauty everywhere, I’m convinced we live in one of the world’s great cities for runners.

What do you sing along to?

Although I think I’m a natural wind player, I often think that if I could start my career again I’d like to be an opera singer. The opera repertoire is the best music there is, and the connection that a singer must make between the body and the instrument must feel incredible. While I was studying in the USA, I would go to the Met Opera in New York up to three times a week. It was the most tremendous experience and the best possible education for myself. I was incredibly lucky to see almost all of the great opera masterworks (plus a heap of contemporary opera as well) performed by the world’s most wonderful singers.

When did you first discover the clarinet was an essential extension of your body?

I’m not sure I’d say the clarinet is an extension of my body – it is only one small part of what I do as a musician. Rather, I’d say that I am living my life through music. To me, this means much more than just the pleasure you receive from playing an instrument, or the thrill of performing - it also encompasses loving the repertoire, listening to and being moved by music, loving the life-long learning process attached to music, keeping up with the physical demands required by the craft. It also encompasses sharing this whole experience with other musicians and audiences. It’s an incredible way to live a life. 

You took on your role as Head of Winds and Artist in Residence at UWA in 2014, just 6 years after you graduated as a student. Your appointment marked the institution’s return to an emphasis on performing and particularly a focus on contemporary music. How are you finding it working as an academic? 

Honestly, I wouldn’t trade my academic job with anyone! It is the ultimate Renaissance-man occupation. My job involves teaching and researching those parts of music that most inspire me, playing with the people who I most want to collaborate with, playing the repertoire that I decide to play, working with the composers that I most admire, being inspired by other art forms, and being inspired by my students. Most of all, I have unbelievably awesome colleagues, a boss that leaves me to my own devices and lets me excel. All of this is wrapped up in a package that places me in the most beautiful location in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. At times managing this job with my performing schedule can be bloody stressful and (if I’m not careful) has the potential to suck all the energy out of me, but the rewards are most definitely worth it.
 

You are a significant role model for your students at UWA. What do you wish you’d known when you were an undergraduate at the School of Music?

I wish I’d known earlier on that the demands of the profession would require me to physically be an athlete.  This has been something that has taken me years to learn how to balance. In order to maintain the quality and quantity of performances that I do, I have to be constantly in peak condition with my cardio and mobility. Out of all aspects of my playing, I am most proud of the efficiency of my breath control. However, this does not come easily -I Crossfit train for and hour and a half most mornings, as well as run and (most recently) swim. I’m pretty ruthless with not letting anything get in the way of my training - I know all the best running tracks and Crossfit gyms in each city in Australia, so I know there is always somewhere I can train. Most of all, I love it intensely.

I know you’re in the throws of preparing for the PIAF Chamber Music Weekend – five big works across 2 days. Your Ensemble Vagabond is contributing some of the more edgy repertoire with Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles and Barber’s Summer Music. How do you go about learning some of the more complex compositions – I
gather highlighters are involved!

The Vagabonds and I have been rehearsing the repertoire for our PIAF concert for a few weeks now, and I think we are increasingly realising that the edgiest piece in the program is in fact not the Ligeti or Barber, but the Beethoven! Even though the Quintet for Piano and Winds is an early work for Beethoven, it is in fact quite ground-breaking: it has lots of strange detours, interesting mixes of instrumental colour and unusual rhythmic and dynamic effects.  Contrarily, the ideas and structure of both the Barber and Ligeti quintets are remarkably simple – the effect being that the Barber is EXTREMELY beautiful, and the Ligeti is very exciting.

You quote David Thomas on your blog saying one of the most important parts of being a musician is being easy to play with. How do you make yourself easy to play with?

The best musicians are generous, ruthlessly prepared, and not musically stubborn (a skill that I had to work very hard to learn!).

You also star in classic works by Schubert (Octet, Shepherd on the Rock) and Beethoven (Quintet in E-flat). What is your top pick for the weekend?

The Schubert Octet is always an experience! Both the performers and audience need to pack the thermos and a cut lunch for the occasion. It is monumental both in its scale and the demands it places on the performers (for instance, the clarinet melody at the opening of the second movement requires a length of breath that is right on the cusp of what even the fittest lungs are capable of delivering). The Menuetto is the stand-out movement for me - it is breathtakingly simple and so perfectly placed within the emotional ride of the whole work.

Mark Applebaum says music should be above all else interesting. What do you think is the most important role of music?

Music allows us to experience emotion, which in turn makes us compassionate people. That is my philosophy on why music is essential to our survival.
Selfie with Lachlan Skipworth, 2015 Art Music Awards.

You are a “Buffet-Crampon Artist” – the clarinet equivalent of being an athlete sponsored by Nike!  How did the sponsorship come about?

Surprisingly I was approached by two different people from, two different events in different countries: one of them was the ABC Young Performer Awards, and the other was a recital which I gave at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC.

Do you have a partner/significant other/pet?

I’m afraid I’m that perpetually single guy and (despite wanting a dog intensely) am unable to have pets because of my travel schedule. However I do have some impressive indoor terrariums. Perhaps the terrariums are the reason why I’m single.

What is your favourite place in Perth?

Can I nominate the whole of the Swan River? Everyday, whether I’m driving down Mounts Bay Rd or running the bridges, the river takes my breath away.

Do you have a soft spot for anything else in life or is it all about the music?

Most of my favourite things begin with the letter ‘C’: clarinet, Crossfit, coffee, cooking, comedy.

And finally to finish, check out the video below of  Ashley with some of his closest mates performing a disco version of the Rite of Spring:



Chamber Music Weekend concerts featuring Ashley William Smith:

Saturday 27th Feb
2-3pm Ensemble Vagabond "Beethoven to Barber" 
Beethoven Quintet in E-flat major for Piano and Winds
Ligeti Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet
Barber Summer Music for Wind Quintet

6-7pm
Messiaen Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time)
Benaud Trio and Ashley Smith (clarinet)
Sunday 28th Feb
10am Schubert Octet in F major
Margaret Blades (violin 1), Zak Rowentree (violin 2), Sally Boud (viola), Michael Goldshlager (cello), Andrew Sinclair (bass), Ashley Smith (clarinet), Adam Mikulicz (bassoon), Julia Brooke (horn)
 
2-3pm
Schubert The Shepherd on the Rock
Sara Macliver (soprano), Ashley Smith (clarinet), Gladys Chua (piano)


Big thanks to Ashley for appearing in the Celebrity Soft Spot series. For more information on Ashley William Smith head to:

Ashley's UWA staff profile
Chamber group the Southern Cross Soloists
Buffet/Crampon artist profile 
Youtube Channel 
UWA Ensemble in Residence Ensemble Vagabond
 



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