In normal seasons, the weeks leading up to the start of the Festival are some of the most anticipated: when artists bound for Spoleto begin to arrive in Charleston and the city swells with a vibrant artistic energy. This year however, artists are tasked with staying home and—just like us—finding themselves navigating these unprecedented times with a little help from Netflix, Zoom, and a few good books. So what’s keeping the folks who inspire us so much inspired themselves? Our “What I’m Watching” series asks just that. Read on to hear from Bank of America Chamber Music favorite, oboist James Austin Smith.
James Austin Smith first made his Spoleto debut in 2011, and Festival audiences have been delighted by his annual appearances ever since. He makes his current home in New York, where he also performs as part of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), and Decoda. He is also the director of Tertulia, a chamber music series that takes place in New York City and San Francisco restaurants, and serves on the oboe and chamber music faculties of Stony Brook University and the Manhattan School of Music. We checked in with him to find out what’s on his daily to-do lists.
What are you binge-watching?
The complete James Bond series: all 24 films, from Sean Connery in Dr. No (1962) until Daniel Craig in Spectre (2015). I’m going to be despondent when it’s over!
What tops your recent Spotify playlists?
I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz, such as Cannonball Adderley, Jeremy Pelt, Marquis Hill, and Perico Sambeat. I’m going to miss the concerts in the Cistern Yard so much this year!
What book is on your bedside table?
Here in Berlin by Cristina García. It was a gift from a close friend.
Any guilty-pleasure snacks?
I’ve been upping my keto baking skills with help from Livia Sohn and Geoff Nuttall! Lots of almond flour and erythritol brownies and chocolate chip cookies.
Do you have quarantine buddies?
My partner Rob, who, gratefully, has a high tolerance for oboe practice in a small New York apartment.
What’s your quarantine schedule?
On weekdays, I’m at my desk by 9:00am, responding to emails, making reeds, and practicing. My afternoons are reserved for teaching my students at Stony Brook University and Manhattan School of Music, all through Zoom. I get to relax on weekends. That sounds pretty normal, but if you’ve spent your entire adult life playing concerts every weekend it’s quite the luxury!
How are you continuing your daily practice?
I’m focusing on the basics: lots of scales and etudes, things that make me feel like I’m really in command of my instrument. And I’m learning the baroque oboe! It has different fingerings, barely any keys, different reeds. It’s a completely foreign and a wonderful way to rediscover my instrument.
What are you most looking forward to when things get back to normal?
City life. I can’t wait for the hustle and bustle to return, to eat out at great restaurants, and to experience live culture, for which there is absolutely no substitute.
Want more? Follow @SpoletoFestivalUSA on Instagram to see a special shout-out from James, and be sure to visit his website at jamesaustinsmith.com for videos, updates, and more. Find him on Instagram @jaustinsmith.
Photos at top (from left): James Austin Smith leading an oboe workshop, photo by Leigh Webber; with the St. Lawrence String Quartet during Spoleto Festival USA’s Bank of America Chamber Music; by William Struhs