Composers who explore other cultures, Smirnoff says, produce the best music. (Photography by Bob Perkoski)

Musical journey

Violinist and teacher Joel Smirnoff searches for culture in music.

As a “musically aware” kid growing up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Joel Smirnoff, X’71, got his first understanding of the world by listening to its orchestras. His travels were limited to the breadth of his record collection and whatever he could get his hands on at the library. “I was a huge fan of the Chicago Symphony,” recalls Smirnoff, president of the Cleveland Institute of Music since 2008 and the 2011 recipient of a professional achievement award from the University’s Alumni Association. “I think I assumed because the Chicago Symphony played the way it did, that there must be something interesting about Chicago. ... That the kind of sensitivity and expertise that existed in that orchestra somehow would be reflected in some kind of human interaction.”

Since those boyhood days by the record player, Smirnoff has been interested in how music and sound reflect communities. He’s spent most of his career as a performer. Until 2009 he was first violinist for the Juilliard String Quartet, and he squeezed in time for jazz and blues gigs. “The blues is an amazing thing,” he says, “because it expresses both the joy and the sorrow of living at the same time.” He’s guest conducted major orchestras in the United States and abroad, including the San Francisco Symphony, the New World Symphony, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Basel Sinfonietta, which he led on a European tour. But he’s an educator too—these days it’s his main gig—and he speaks of music like a cultural historian. 

Recently he stood before a concert hall full of classical-music greenhorns about to hear Mahler’s Resurrection at Cleveland’s Severance Hall and explained, “You’re being given the privilege, when you play a piece from 1888 like this, of actually getting inside the heads and hearts of the people at that time.” Mahler composed the work in Vienna, which then was “to some extent a military camp,” so he would have heard a lot of military bands. “He’s Jewish; there’s some klezmer music. He converted to Catholicism, and there are many beautiful hymns in the piece.” A popular dance of the day, “the ländler,” is in there too, as are offstage trumpets both left and right, harking back to the low-tech days of wartime communication from valley to valley with loud blasts of sound. “We have to listen to music,” he said, “for the culture that’s in the music.”

Smirnoff, who previously chaired the violin program at Juilliard, was the right choice to lead the Cleveland Institute, said his former boss, Juilliard School president Joseph Polisi. “He’s a superb musician and a very dedicated teacher, and he has a great intelligence as well,” Polisi told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Like Smirnoff, the institute has a good reputation (more than half of the Cleveland Orchestra members either teach or studied there), a passion for chamber music, and diverse interests beyond that. Founded in 1920 as a place “where every type of student could find opportunity for the best musical education,” it hasn’t lost its populist streak. The institute’s halls can be a lively and heartening scene: undergrads with outsized stringed instruments strapped to their backs zip in and out of practice rooms; a clump of tiny shoes await their owners outside a preschool eurythmics class; cast members of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel clamber by in full Bavarian forest attire; high-school kids hang out before a young composers’ workshop.

Undergraduates teach and perform in inner-city public schools and elsewhere around Cleveland. “They come here at the age of 17, if they’re freshmen, or 18, with ten to 14 years of training,” Smirnoff says. “They’ve already devoted so much energy and so many hours that they already have something to share in a safe environment. It’s important that they know that and realize how lucky they are to be musicians.”

As a history student at Chicago, Smirnoff listened to local greats in South Side blues clubs and played with Tony Bennett, the Jeff Carp (AB’72) Band, and the Grant Park Orchestra. On his office bookshelves sit two works by his mentor, Eric Cochrane, the Italian history scholar who wrote a seminal book on the post-Renaissance years, Florence in the Forgotten Centuries (University of Chicago Press, 1976). In the 1960s, when violence broke out in Woodlawn and students occupied the Administration Building, Cochrane was “one of the real motivated, balanced personalities in the midst of all that turbulence,” Smirnoff recalls. “He saw the much bigger picture in some way, as opposed to just that particular moment. ... A good historian thinks that way.”

Smirnoff too tries to anticipate “where the society is heading musically and to be able to help our students see it. That’s really what it’s about.” Young musicians, he says, have increasing cultural savvy because they can go online and listen to performances from anywhere in the world. “You want your composers to be culturally aware and to be culturally curious and to potentially fall in love with music of another culture. Because most of the great composers did that.” George Gershwin fell in love with jazz and “basically adopted that as his language.”  Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven all had longstanding affairs with Italian Renaissance art.

“The best music gets written,” he says, when a composer “decides to work in the language of another culture. They’ve taken a global step at that point.” In a sense, Smirnoff is still that kid listening by the record player, waiting for a glimmer of understanding of a rich and mysterious place.