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Meet clarinettist Dr. Ashley Smith

Dubbed the ‘rock star of the clarinet’, Perth’s own Dr. Ashley Smith has an impressive résumé.

After completing his studies in music at the University of Western Australia, the Australian National Academy of Music, and Yale University, Ashley has gone on to become one of Australia’s most sought-after young musicians. As well as performing as a soloist and chamber musician with several of Australia’s major orchestras and ensembles – including our West Australian Symphony Orchestra – he has performed extensively throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. Since 2014, Ashley has also been teaching music at UWA, imparting his passion and skills to his students at the Conservatorium of Music.

We are thrilled to welcome Dr. Ashley Smith to perform at three upcoming concerts at Perth Concert Hall – including Cygnus Arioso’s rescheduled Chamber Music Weekend (this time taking place in the grand acoustics of our main auditorium!), Musica Viva Australia’s first 2021 season concert in WA, and WASO’s sold out Symphonic Stories. In anticipation, we spoke with Ashley about these exciting upcoming concerts, his experiences performing at Perth Concert Hall, plus some other fun bits and pieces.

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When did you start playing the clarinet and what drew you to that instrument?

Up until my late teens, I never really had any intention of being a clarinettist – I wanted to be a composer. I think it was the compositional approach that attracted me to the clarinet – I loved the music written for it, and its stylistic breadth. During my first few years as an undergraduate student, I didn’t take the instrument too seriously. On my first day at university, I remember one of my professors telling me that I needed to practise ‘about six billion scales.’ It took a couple of years for the message to kick in, but one day I decided I should probably start practising scales. After playing six billion of them, I found (almost by accident) that I had become a performer.

You’re playing in quite a few concerts at Perth Concert Hall this year! What do you remember about the first time you performed here?

My first solo performance on the PCH stage was for the second round of the ABC Young Performer Awards back when I was an undergraduate student. I played the Copland Clarinet Concerto, accompanied by piano. I remember feeling like I could musically do anything – it was the warmest acoustic I’d encountered and it allowed me to be the best musician I could be. I still feel the same – it’s my favourite acoustic of any hall in the world. Perth Concert Hall is also the root of my fascination with brutalist architecture. I love the beauty of its simple lines and form, and the play of wood, glass, concrete and ceramic textures. We are incredibly lucky to have architecture of this quality in our city. Although I’m incredibly excited that the building is soon to be receiving some much-needed love and attention, I sincerely hope that the integrity of its design is respected. Buildings in the brutalist style are too often misunderstood and subject to disastrous renovation. The aesthetic intent and balance of the original design must remain the number one priority.

We’re really looking forward to Cygnus Arioso’s Chamber Music Weekend Finale concert next month. In your opinion, what is the most special thing about chamber music?

What is special is the intimacy of the experience – I’d take a Beethoven piano trio over a Mahler symphony any day. Chamber music provides brutally honest insight into the people on stage. I love seeing and hearing the relationship each person has with their instrument, the music they are playing, and the colleagues they are playing with.

And just a few days before the Cygnus Arioso concert, you’ll be performing in Musica Viva’s first WA concert of the year! What is your favourite piece of music in this program?

I’m super excited to be playing Louise Farrenc’s Op. 44 Trio for clarinet, cello and piano. I’ve been trying to program this piece for over a year, and this particular concert became the perfect opportunity. Despite being composed in 1855, this will be its West Australian (or maybe even the Australian) premiere.

If you hadn’t pursued a career in music, what would you be doing instead?

I’d be an interior designer or an architect. Design gives me the same creative buzz that music provides. Over the past couple of years, I have been renovating my apartment in West Perth and (apart from the dust) I have loved every moment of it. I also have a passion for fitness and would love to be a fitness trainer.

Do you have any pre-show rituals?

I absolutely hate being on my own before any performance – I begin to overthink what it is that I’m about to do. Generally, I’ll just have a coffee (I need the caffeine!) and chat with my fellow performers. If I’m playing solo, I’ll go and annoy the stage crew or anyone who happens to be backstage.

What are the top five songs on your Spotify/Apple playlist at the moment?

Oh no – this could get embarrassing! Here are the honest answers…

1. Lady Gaga’s Chromatica album. Although I love all of Gaga’s output, I was super excited when she returned to dance pop, especially with the disco vibe that permeates this album. Since its release last year, this album has been my running and getting-ready-in-the-morning music. It makes me happy.

2. Weber’s Clarinet Concerto No. 1 performed by Antony Pay and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. I’m preparing this concerto for a performance with WASO in May and this recording on period instruments is giving me lots of inspiration for colour and phrasing. 

3. Mitsuko Uchida’s recording of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. Rarely does a week go by where I don’t listen to this recording. This recording radiates beauty – it’s truly transformative.

4. Solange Knowles’ album A Seat at the Table. A friend introduced me to this album while we were driving home from Albany last weekend. I love Beyoncé, but I might end up loving her sister even more. Solange’s control and musicianship are something special.

5. Hypnagogia, an album of electronic music by my colleague and mate James Ledger. Australian classical music audiences will be well acquainted with James’s orchestral music – however, this album sees him move sideways into electronica. It’s stunning. I’m super inspired to see such an accomplished artist experiment with his forms and mediums.

We’ve put together a Spotify playlist of Ashley’s current favourite songs so that you can have a listen! Check it out here.

 Don't miss Dr. Ashley Smith perform in two concerts at Perth Concert Hall this month!

Cygnus Arioso: Chamber Music Weekend Finale
Sunday 14 March, 4pm | Tickets and more information available here.

Musica Viva Australia: Ashley Smith, Paul Wright, Sophie Curtis & Gladys Chua
Wednesday 10 March, 7:30pm | Tickets and more information available here.