On the Record with Linc Smelser

DeKALB – Linc Smelser describes classical music as “timeless works of art to be enjoyed by everybody,” and compares it to the famous artistic works of Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci.

Smelser is the conductor and music director of the Kishwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

The KSO is will conclude its 45th season by presenting a concert titled, “Happy 45th Anniversary, KSO,” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 7, at the Boutell Memorial Concert Hall in the Northern Illinois University Music Building in DeKalb.

All seats are general admission, with no reserved seating. It is recommended to arrive early. Individual ticket prices are $18 for adults, $15 for ages 62 and older and $7 for students and children. Visit kishorchestra.org/ticket-info for information about buying tickets online.

The KSO encourages everyone to continue wearing a mask and to practice physical distancing between individuals and family groups at the concert.

To learn more about the Kishwaukee Symphony Orchestra, visit kishorchestra.org or facebook.com/kishorchestra or call 815-756-3728. Changes in programs, dates, times and locations of concerts will be posted on the KSO website and Facebook page. To donate to KSO for Give DeKalb County on May 5, visit www.givedekalbcounty.org.

Smelser spoke to MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton about the orchestra and its 45th anniversary concert.

Milton: What is the KSO and how did it start?

Smelser: At the very beginning, there were a handful of amateur musicians who got together in a church basement. The orchestra started getting bigger and bigger. It’s a community orchestra, so the heart and soul of a group like this is that it’s made up of amateur musicians in the community. We play mostly classical music, and some lighter classical music, which is called pops music. Examples of pops music are movie music scores and what you hear on TV or commercials. We perform seven concerts every year: two pops concerts, including a holiday pops concert and a spring pops concert; three classical concerts in fall, winter and late spring; a Halloween concert and a children’s concert at the Egyptian Theatre during the day, with the children bussed in for a field trip.

Milton: Are there any original members of the orchestra still performing?

Smelser: The last charter member retired last year, and she’s my mother-in-law, Marilyn Montzka. She performed with the orchestra for 43 seasons.

Milton: Why does the orchestra perform classical music?

Smelser: It’s keeping art alive that’s been around for hundreds of years. Classical music is part of our culture. In this day and age, unfortunately there isn’t enough attention paid to that side of our past. It is definitely a connection to our past. And musically, everything we have now is from classical, including jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. Composers like Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms are like the famous painters Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci. Their work is so extraordinary. There’s been millions of composers through the last hundreds of years, but we play the extraordinary composers because there’s something special about them. Both the music and the artwork are timeless works of art to be enjoyed by everybody.

Milton: What do you think is special about classical music?

Smelser: It has so much more depth and sophistication to it. A lot of the great composers are considered progressives, they don’t just perform in just one style their entire lives. They evolved in their own careers. If you take the works of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, from the beginning to the end of their careers, the transformation is staggering. They paved the road for change and everything that is yet to come. If you take The Beatles, what they sounded like at the beginning and at the end, you can also see how they evolved and influenced so many artists that came after them. They were so innovative, and there’s a special quality and uniqueness to what they were able to produce as composers. Great musicians, great artists, great authors, are the ones that stand out because they’re very unique and special. They are timeless.

Milton: Who is the audience for classical music?

Smelser: Our audience, it can be difficult to pinpoint who our audience is and who we’re playing for: seasoned musicians, people who grew up playing classical music and instruments, or people who are not musicians or play instruments at all. Classical music may not be for everyone, just like jazz isn’t for everybody. However, orchestras are trying to reach out to everyone in the audience by offering a wider mix of options, including pops music or music from John Williams and “Star Wars.”

Milton: Have you also performed with the KSO?

Smelser: I played for 15 years as a cellist and have been conducting for 20 years, so I’ve been involved with the Kishwaukee Symphony Orchestra for 35 years total. As a cellist, I have also played with the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Being a musician and a conductor, are two different perspectives. As a conductor, you have the pleasure and the pressure of choosing the music that will reach a broad audience.

Milton: Is classical music gaining in popularity?

Smelser: There is a huge amount of young musicians becoming educated in classical music. There are classical music programs all over the country and all over the world. More and more, as a performer, I’m seeing younger and younger people in the audience. It’s keeping our past and culture alive with something that is rather spectacular. People of all ages can sit back, listen and really enjoy what they’re hearing and get something out of it. Classical music is not just for older people, by any means.

Milton: Tell me about the musicians of KSO.

Smelser: Our core group is about 55 to 60 musicians, and we’re an interesting mix of people. We have a lot of community amateurs, people who studied and played their instruments when they were kids. We have some professional musicians, people who went to school for music and that’s their day job. We also have local music teachers and high school students. NIU performance and music education majors receive a stipend for them to play with us, so they can earn a little bit of money while playing in our orchestra. It’s a little taste of freelancing. Non-music majors at NIU can perform in the orchestra as a class, the Campus String Orchestra class, and get college credit for it. We’re always looking for new musicians. We’re open to any string players. We have a more limited number of seats for winds and brass sections.

Milton: What sets a community orchestra like KSO apart?

Smelser: Community orchestras are volunteer mostly, so you know everyone is there because they want to be. It’s not a job like a professional orchestra with tenure and contracts. It’s a different dynamic. People are there because they want to be, rather than they have to be.

Katrina Milton

Katrina J.E. Milton

Award-winning reporter and photographer for Shaw Media publications, including The Daily Chronicle and The MidWeek newspapers in DeKalb County, Illinois, since 2012.