To anyone who saw Opera Australia’s Il viaggio a Reims in 2019, Daniel Smith is the conductor who doubled as one of the bidders in an onstage auction. To European audiences, however, he is one of our most prominent cultural ambassadors, as well as a highly sought-after conductor with offers coming thick and fast. He talks to Jansson J. Antmann about the importance of compassion, respect and trust in his life and work.

Daniel Smith. Photo © Priamo Tolu

Australian conductor Daniel Smith is riding the crest of a wave and, with his schedule full to overflowing, finding time for an interview is no mean feat. When we do finally sit down, a week has passed since our initial agreement to meet. It is Friday morning, and he has just arrived back in Rome, where he lives.

Apologising for the toing and froing, he explains that he has received two last-minute invitations – one to conduct the Orchestra Sinfonica Siciliana that weekend, and another from the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra for a series of concerts beginning in late March.

“And the airline lost my luggage,” he adds.

The two invitations are on top of two existing engagements in Poland, both imminent.

Next week he will be in Gdańsk conducting the Polish Baltic Philharmonic in Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 alongside Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn & Strings with celebrated tenor Allan Clayton and Principal Horn Michał Szczerba.

Clayton is no stranger to Australian audiences, having wowed them with his “sensational” performance as Hamlet in Neil Armfield’s production of Brett Dean’s opera at the 2018 Adelaide Festival. He will reprise the role for Opera Australia in July and August this year.

“I’ve always wanted to work with Allan,” Smith says. “He’s one the greatest tenors on the circuit and he’s enjoying huge success at the moment. I’m very lucky to have this opportunity and very proud to be working with him.”

Smith then travels to the Wrocław Opera to conduct Giancarlo del Monaco’s production of Madama Butterfly in March. Del Monaco directed Opera Australia’s Luisa Miller in 2016.

Daniel Smith. Photo © Marco Borggreve

The presence of such heavyweights in Poland typifies the cultural renaissance sweeping the country.

Wagnerian Bass-baritone and star of the Metropolitan Opera and Bayreuth, Tomasz Konieczny, recently revived the Baltic Opera Festival in Sopot. Marin Alsop has taken up the role of Artistic Director with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice, while the National Philharmonic in Warsaw will soon welcome Krzysztof Urbański as its latest Chief Conductor. Urbański led the Australian Youth Orchestra on its triumphant world tour in 2019.

Also in Warsaw, Australian director Simon Stone took critics and audiences by storm last month with his staging of Cherubini’s Médée, a co-production of the Polish National Opera and the Salzburg Festival.

Smith is not surprised by the renewed interest in Poland. “I remember, 10 or 12 years ago now, when it was an emerging market. Now Poland is one of the most progressive countries in terms of both symphonic classical music and opera lirica. The country has built an enormous number of incredible concert halls in Gdańsk, Szczecin and Wrocław with the NFM (National Forum of Music). Katowice now has one of the best concert halls with the most incredible acoustics in all of Europe, and the Vienna Philharmonic and Berlin Philharmonic regularly play there.”

“The other thing I find about Poland is that all the concerts are pretty much sold out. It’s a country where it feels like it’s becoming a centre of culture for the whole world, and it’s very exciting to be a part of that.”

Smith’s love affair with Poland began in 2011, when he won the Orchestra’s Choice Prize in that year’s Lutosławski International Conducting Competition. In 2012, he continued this success by taking out the first prize, Golden Baton and Orchestra’s Choice Prize at Unesco’s International Conducting Competition (in memory of Grzegorz Fitelberg), held every five years in Katowice.

That same year, he also won the Mancinelli International Opera Conducting Competition in Italy, and he was awarded Second Prize at the prestigious Sir Georg Solti International Conducting Competition in Germany.

Kevin Zhu performs with the Polish Baltic Philharmonic under Daniel Smith in 2022. Photo © Edyta Steć

“After winning those two competitions – the Lutosławski and the Fitelberg – Poland opened up for me hugely,” Smith says. “I’ve been to most of the orchestras there with three invitations a year, and I love it. I’m very lucky that the country has taken me under its wing, as Italy did 20 years ago.”

Since arriving in Europe, Smith has regularly conducted at major houses across the continent. He was appointed Principal Guest Director of Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa and has been a regular guest conductor of the Mariinsky Orchestra in Saint Petersburg, becoming the first Australian to conduct it in 2013.

However, it is the Polish Baltic Philharmonic that changed his outlook on life.

“I was there for two weeks conducting two programs at the start of the pandemic,” he recalls. “The first was with Alexander Gavrylyuk, whom I’d invited to play Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto alongside Shostakovich’s 12th Symphony. The following week was Mozart’s Jupiter symphony, and I’d invited Kevin Zhu to perform Paganini’s Second Violin Concerto as part of the program. Zhu had won the 55th Paganini International Violin Competition in Genoa, where I was on the jury.”

“We’d rehearsed on the Monday and Tuesday, and we knew the virus was coming. I remember I was in the middle of rehearsals on Wednesday and suddenly the managing director, the artistic director, and the orchestra manager all walked onto the stage behind the orchestra. They looked at me, shook their heads, and I just thought, ‘That’s it.’ So, I stopped the orchestra, and they told me, the Polish President had announced that the borders would be closing at midnight. In that moment, there was a lot of fear because we didn’t know what was going on. And that’s when I saw the power of an orchestra as a family.”

“This was an orchestra I barely knew; I’d been there the week before, and only once before that. And yet, so many musicians came to me and said, ‘Don’t worry, you can stay with my family as long as you need.’ I’d always felt the conductor was separate in a way, and this was the first time I felt part of a family.”

Daniel Smith. Photo supplied

Smith is still moved by the experience, and he continues by highlighting the importance of compassion, respect and trust in his work.

“It comes down to trusting myself, trusting the musicians, trusting what the composer has written. The great composers knew how to compose, and how to change tempi. It’s in their notes, their orchestrations and use of instruments, because they have different weights.”

“For example, when you play Dvořák and Elgar, there are several tempi changes and turns that are quite difficult to navigate, but they’re all written perfectly. Sometimes we overthink that, but you have to trust the composer as much as possible, trust the orchestra and everything you’ve learned throughout your life. Then you can take risks.”

Smith likens it to the way former Qantas pilot, Captain Richard de Crespigny, was able to land his A380 after an engine exploded mid-flight.

“You’re in that moment; you have a split second to go one way or the other; and you draw on the knowledge you’ve learned on how to deal with every possible situation. And that comes back to our teachers. I’m incredibly lucky and grateful for every teacher I’ve ever had. And I’m not just talking about my conducting teachers, but my music teachers and my schoolteachers as well.”

“You’re a student for life, in this field, and I hope I never lose that attitude of wanting to learn every single day.”

Smith smiles as he fondly remembers discussing Dvořák’s Cello Concerto with Mischa Maisky. “He’d performed and recorded it with the world’s best for decades, and now we were going to play it together. I told him I’d studied it a decade earlier, and he replied that he was still studying it!”

“Hearing these words from an esteemed artist I so greatly admired really opened my eyes. The number one thing I do when I work with any orchestra, whether it be for the first time or it’s an orchestra I’ve been working with for a decade or more, is to put my complete trust in the musicians.”

“You have to trust your team. They’re the ones making the music, and I have a responsibility to do my research. Part of the job is to know how far I can push each instrument and how far I can push each individual musician, while never going over the line you’re trying to reach. It’s a bit like curling,” he says, laughing.

William Barton looks candidly in a black wind jacket, holding his didgeridoo.

William Barton. Photo © Keith Saunders

This trust also applies to the audience, and Smith is quick to acknowledge he has an equally important role in building its trust in him, especially if he is to continue promoting contemporary composers and programming their works.

“There are so many Italian and Polish composers that we need to champion more,” he says, “just as I try and take Australian composers and soloists on tour as much as possible.”

Alexander Gavrylyuk is a good example, as is Kalkadunga composer and performer William Barton, with whom Smith has forged a fruitful relationship.

“William and I have been collaborating internationally for more than 10 years now. And we’ve been good friends even longer than that,” he says.

“I remember one of the first performances was in 2015, when I was invited to conduct at the Stars of the White Nights festival in St Petersburg for the second time. I’d been conducting at the Mariinsky since 2012, so by that stage, I was allowed to bring a soloist and wanted to promote Australia, so we bought William over to huge success. And I don’t use the term ‘huge success’ lightly.”

That same year, they performed at the World Expo in Milan. “It was the only year that Australia didn’t have a pavilion, and I wanted to do something special. We had a concert in the middle of the Expo with the Milan Symphony Orchestra and, again, I invited William so that we could give Kalkadungu its first Italian outing.”

An invitation to conduct at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in 2018 followed and Barton joined Smith once more. The performance was part of Smith’s project with the Australian Embassy in Rome to create stronger cultural and commercial relations between Italy and Australia through music.

This is one of two initiatives Smith is most passionate about, the second being the Daniel Smith Gift of Music Foundation. Through it, he purchases and donates hundreds of tickets to those unable to attend performances because of financial constraint, terminal illness, blindness and disability.

With all his achievements abroad, Smith says he is also keen to come back to Australia, not only to conduct, but to share his knowledge and experience with young composers, conductors and soloists who want to break onto the international scene.

Judging by the accolades and rapturous applause he received when he conducted Opera Australia’s production of Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims in 2019, there can be no doubt that Australian audiences are keen to see him return to our shores.

Following his OA debut, Smith says other projects were in the offing, but the pandemic put paid to those. For the meantime, we will have to wait, and if his schedule is anything to go by, this jet-setting conductor has got plenty to keep him busy.

As for his luggage, it turned up in Singapore and is now on its way to Rome.

Get Limelight's free weekly round-up of music, arts and culture.