I finally got the chance to meet a lawyer/classically trained violinist who wants to play fiddle for Willie Nelson at a Ravinia Festival concert someday and eats poached eggs with Cholula hot sauce and sautéed spinach each morning.
Do I have a great job or what?
Emma Smoler — the first Executive Director of the Oistrakh Symphony in Chicago and a resident of Highland Park (Ravinia District) for a little more than a year — agrees to join me for an outdoor lunch at Beelow’s Northshore in Highland Park on a pleasant Monday afternoon in July. Aware that this page features its subject in an illustration with a breakfast order, the 37-year-old Smoler scans the menu and asks our waitress for a side of two eggs (over easy this time) to accompany her selection of bruschetta topped with tomatoes and basil.
“My husband [Robert] grew up in Highland Park, but he never pushed for us to move here while we lived in Chicago [Bucktown] for many years,” says Smoler, the mother of two (daughter Renata, 9, and son Jascha, 6, named after the late Russian violinist Jascha Heifetz, considered one of the greatest violinists of all time).
“I absolutely fell in love with this community as soon as we moved here. I can hear Ravinia concerts from my front porch. Isn’t that great? I love the Ravinia District. Everything about it. It’s heaven to me.”
A young Emma Lyn Cryderman was sitting in a pew at a church in Wheaton and listening to young musicians perform Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” when it hit her: Music would have to be a big part of her life.
“That day,” she recalls, “I knew I wanted to play the violin. But my mother [Esther] insisted I had to learn to play the piano first. She told me, ‘Then the violin, maybe.’ ”
A 9-year-old Emma took violin lessons — with a rented instrument. She didn’t own her first violin until her senior year at Caledonia High School in Kent County, Michigan, where she got to know a classmate named Eric Masse after performing in a rock band, Emma and Alison.
“Eric and I were music nerds, organizing and producing annual rock shows at the school,” Smoler says. “We pretty much did everything … even ticket sales and lights.”
An award-winning recording engineer and record producer. He won the 2017 Academy of Country Music’s Album of the Year award for Miranda Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings.
Smoler matriculated at Central Michigan University on a music scholarship and studied there for three years before transferring to Loyola University in Chicago. She then earned her Juris Doctor degree at The John Marshall School in Chicago.
“I went to law school because it’s hard to make it just as a musician,” says Smoler, who, as a trial lawyer, brought an astounding number of cases — more than 30 — to jury trial from 2010-16. “I learned a lot during those trials, and I became fearless.
“Plus I liked the performance aspect of it.”
Today she is still a licensed lawyer but fully embraces the challenges that come with being the first full-time staffer at Oistrakh Symphony Orchestra (OSC), founded in 2005 by Mina Zikri, who serves the unique ensemble as its music director and conductor. OSC was named after esteemed Russian violinist David Oistrakh (1908-1974); Zikri studied the violin in Germany under the tutelage of Oistrakh’s son and grandson. OSC’s mission is to offer audiences and musicians exposure to a broad classical repertoire, performed at the highest level.
Its signature concerts collaborate with well-known featured soloists from both the world of symphony music and other musical genres, such as folk, jazz and pop. OSC gets behind the forces of quality and innovation to expand the number of classical music enthusiasts in the city and suburbs.
The OSC, in a way, is the CSO’s (Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s) younger, scrappy, creative little sibling.
“Classical music tends to attract an older audience,” says Smoler, who comes from a family of pastors and music ministers and played in touring orchestras for Josh Groban and Sarah McLachlan at concerts held at Northerly Island in Chicago last summer. “We’re trying to get younger people to appreciate and love this kind of music, and we’re hoping to achieve that by making it easily accessible. Many of our musicians [ages 24-40] are right out of grad school, highly engaged, eager to perform at a high level. The men don’t wear black tuxedoes, and the women wear colorful clothes.
“There’s an educational outreach aspect to what we do, too. We collaborate with organizations [Classical Kids Music Education and Chicago Opera Theater] and put on 45-minute shows, or mini operas, for kids and tell them stories about famous composers, who led interesting lives and had eccentric personalities.”
Plans are in place for DePaul University’s School of Music to become OSC’s home base in 2018. Smoler mentions the Northbrook Symphony and Highland Park Strings as potential OSC partners in the venture to net young orchestral fans and inspire them to develop a lifelong interest in classical music.
OSC produces four to five concerts each year and offers an assortment of entertainment options for smaller events, e.g. a string quartet for a private party or a chamber group for a wedding reception.
Smoler’s first day on the job was in early January.
“To grow OSC, to make it more visible,” Smoler says. “How do we get this to pop?
“One of the many rewards of my position is seeing our musicians get the recognition they deserve.”
One of her challenges outside the music halls and the walls of justice occurred in 2013, at the age of 33. Smoler was in court when she felt searing pain in her stomach. She thought it was an ulcer; it was a rare form of stomach cancer instead. Smoler underwent surgery 10 days later.
“My kids were 3 and 6,” says Smoler, an avid jogger. “Life become more precious. Being a mother and a member of a family became more important to me. It was then that I focused more on the creative part of my life.
“What could I do to make the world a more beautiful place?”
For more information about OSC, please visit oistrakhsymphony.org.