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On the record ... with Linc Smelser

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

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Linc Smelser is hoping to attract new fans to the Kishwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s Holiday Pops concert on Friday, Dec. 13.

“If we can get more average people who don’t know anything about classical music to come to one of our pops concerts ... maybe they’ll try one of the other concerts,” Smelser said.

Pops concerts feature popular music, usually combined with selections of classical music. KSO’s annual holiday concert is its most popular event of the year, and is arranged to be family-friendly, and even invites children from the audience onto the stage during Haydn’s “Toy Symphony.”

“We give the kids little percussion instruments that they can play along with us,” Smelser said. “At the end of the concert we do a sing-along, where the audience gets to sing along with traditional hymns or popular Christmas songs.”

Smelser moved to DeKalb in 1986 to study the cello at Northern Illinois University, and he now teaches music at NIU. 

Smelser spoke with MidWeek reporter Curtis Clegg last week.

MidWeek: Has music always been an interest of yours?

Linc Smelser: My mother is a piano teacher and my grandfather on her side was a concert pianist, so music is in the family. I started playing the piano when I was 8 and I started playing the cello when I was 10. Music came naturally to me, so I continued my studies on both instruments, and by the time I was in high school I was pretty sure I was going to make music my career.

MW: What has your decade of conducting the KSO been like?

LS: I played in the orchestra as principal cello for 16 years. I started playing in 1986 when I moved here, and I met my wife Ann. Her father was the conductor, and they needed a principal cellist and we got married about a year-and-a-half later. I just fit into the family that way. …I started guest-conducting the KSO, and that’s how I got started. I had always known as a player in that orchestra that the potential was very high. We have a pretty good talent pool in this area as far as semi-professional musicians and amateur musicians. When I took over I saw some hidden potential that I wanted to exploit, and I think the orchestra has come a long way in 10 years from where they were. I suppose one of the differences is the group is a lot more diverse from where they were – we have a wider age range, maybe toward the younger side than what we had before. Behind the scenes, we have become a lot more grown-up, which I guess is a good way to put it. We have an endowment fund now, we have a larger symphony board, and we’re a certified nonprofit organization through the IRS.

MW: What would you tell someone about the pops concerts?

LS: People are intimidated by classical music. If the only thing they associate with it is money or being stuffy or being highbrow music or whatever, it’s not meant to be that way at all. …One thing orchestras around the country are trying to do is get rid of that (stuffy) attitude and convince the public that the orchestra wants them to come with open arms and experience this great music. The music is not just what was written 300 years ago – some of this music is being written right now, and the average Joe should know that this music (today) could be as famous in 300 years as what Beethoven is now.

MW: Tell me about the Holiday Pops concert.

LS: It’s something we started doing seven or eight years ago. One of the former musicians in the group always talked about doing a holiday pops concert and when I came on board, one of the first things I wanted to do was add that to our season because music is a very significant part of the holidays. It was an immediate success and (now) it’s probably our most popular concert every year in terms of attendance. It’s a nice balance of modern holiday music and some classical music associated with the holidays that we like to play. …One of our favorite parts of this concert is playing Haydn’s “Toy Symphony,” where we invite the kids anywhere from 5 years old to 14 or 16 to come up on stage. 

MW: How many members does the orchestra have?

LS: It depends on what we’re performing, but in general we have 60 or 65 people. …I always like to have more strings, because the more strings there are, the louder the brass and woodwinds can play. If the string section is too small or a little on the soft side, it’s very easy for them to get overpowered by the brass and percussion. If we have more strings, it’s a richer and fuller sound. …Mainly where the orchestra size oscillates from concert to concert is in the strings. Since we’re not a professional orchestra and people don’t get paid to play, we rely on volunteers and people aren’t always able to commit to every concert. But overall, it’s a pretty stable orchestra.

MW: What are your plans for the KSO?

LS: It would be really nice to do a concert in the suburbs. I wanted to do a concert in Naperville at Wentz Hall at North Central College and it would be fun to do a run-out concert there just to give the orchestra some more visibility.

MW: What are your earliest memories of music in your home?

LS: I have three siblings who are older than me and I was born in 1964, so by the time I was old enough to start to appreciate music it was right in the heart of British rock ‘n’ roll. The Beatles were in their peak and between 1966 and ’72 there was a lot going on in the rock music scene, so believe it or not I was influenced a lot because my older siblings listened to all that music. …When I’m driving in the car – which I do a lot of – I prefer to listen to that kind of music rather than classical. I listen to classical all the time with my conducting, teaching, and playing.

MW: What is it about the cello that appeals to you?

LS: It’s very simple how it got started. My mother went back to college after I got a little older, because with the four kids she had put off her college studies to raise us. When she went off to Arizona State University she befriended a cello professor there, and she was always very taken by the cello so she told him about me and how I played the piano. He wanted to see how big my hand was so I went there, and my hand was bigger than his and I was 10 at the time. He said, “It looks like he has good hands for the cello.” …So we rented an instrument and found a teacher in the area and started taking lessons. It’s not like I was listening to the classical station one day and heard the cello and just fell in love with it.

MW: What brought you to DeKalb?

LS: I was studying both my instruments privately, cello and piano, and in my high school years I was excelling quickly in cello and my teacher couldn’t keep up with me. I went for about a year and a half without a lesson. I had gone off to a rather prolific music camp in summer in Michigan and I told one of my teachers there about my dilemma, and he knew a guy in Tucson named Gordon Epperson who teaches at the University of Arizona. Tucson is about two and-a-half-hours from Phoenix, so we didn’t really think about going that far, but this guy said he was amazing. So we gave him a call and then my mom and I drove down to have a lesson with him and I absolutely fell in love with this guy. We had an instant connection. I started studying with him when I was a senior in high school, and by about December it was a foregone conclusion that I was going to continue studying with him in college. I did that, and he knew a teacher who was at NIU in DeKalb, her name was Raya Garbousova and she was a very famous woman. …My teacher in Tucson sent a lot of his students here because they were friends and he respected her teaching very much. I auditioned for her and that’s what brought me to DeKalb, to study for my master’s degree.

MW: What do you do in your free time?

LS: I like to run with the dog. I love to go out to Afton and Merritt prairies to run. That’s where I get a lot of my ideas and think a lot about different programs or ways to help the orchestra. I also like to bike ride when the weather is better than it is now. I have two kids so of course my time is heavily invested in them. I love being a family guy.

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