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With his many positions, including those of artistic director of the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra and music director of the Joffrey Ballet, Scott Speck is a busy man. Despite his whirlwind schedule, he insists, “I love my life. It’s a really good balance. There are a couple weeks a year that are very stressful, where I try to figure out which dates are going to be where next season. Once that is set and everyone has their expectations, then it’s relatively easy, because I feel like I’m going home in every direction.”
Speck returns March 30 to Symphony Center for two Family Matinee concerts titled “Flash Back, Flash Forward.” On the program will be excerpts from works such as Dvořák’s Carnival Overture and Symphony No. 9 (From the New World), Florence Price’s Symphony Nos. 1 and 3, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4.
In each of his conducting positions, he tries to buck conventions so that people might find a key to unlocking classical music. One such effort is talking at least once from the podium during concerts. Although that might not sound like a big deal, it has only become a common practice in the last decade or two, and it is still frowned on by some conductors.
Some works, such as Tchaikovsky’s popular Violin Concerto, need no introduction. “That’s a piece that you don’t need anything in order to love,” he said. “It’s like someone says, ‘Taste this,’ and it’s delicious from the first moment.” But Sibelius’ Second Symphony can be more challenging and a few words can serve as the key in the lock. When he presented the piece in Muskegon, Mich., for example, he explained that the climate there and in Finland, where Sibelius lived, was very similar, with cold, dreary and dark winters. Sibelius evokes such oppressive conditions in the symphony’s first three movements. “You get to the beginning of the fourth movement, and suddenly, there’s this glorious ray of D major sunshine that is all the more special because he made you wait for it,” he said. “And it’s all that waiting that can be filled with anxiety, angst and drama that is not necessarily pleasant but you have to go through it to really experience the glory at the end.”
Speck also has been heavily involved in educational concerts for young people and families. He estimates that he has led 800 or so such programs since he started as assistant conductor of the Honolulu Symphony in 1991. In addition, the West Michigan Symphony is one of the 10 original orchestras to take part in Carnegie Hall’s Link Up program. Through this nationwide initiative, musicians travel to New York City for regular training, and once back home, they work with educators to bring music to students in their region.
A version of this article previously appeared on Sounds and Stories.