MCA Freedman Classical Fellow 2012

by Dr Richard Letts. Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 19 Issue 1 (November 2012)

Contemporary Music Champion

The winner of the Freedman Classical Fellowship 2012 is clarinettist Ashley Smith.

This is the most recent in a succession of important competitions in which Ashley has been a winner. Among them are two at Yale University, where he is currently undertaking post-graduate studies.

His commitments at Yale made it very difficult for Ashley to return to Australia for the mandatory Freedman Fellowship interview and live audition. So for the first time in the Freedman history, a finalist was auditioned online from a foreign country. The judges heard and interviewed Ashley on a big screen in Recital Hall West at the Sydney Conservatorium. This worked wonderfully well, although in one way not so well for Ashley.

Ashley remarked: ‘It was quite a nerve-wracking experience giving such a significant performance to a camera in a large empty concert hall’. Something the judges will need to allow for in that rather bloodless situation.


Ashley is the youngest of four siblings born to a bus driver and school librarian from suburban Perth. This was not an instrument-playing or classical concert-going family, and Ashley grew up with the recorded music of Burt Bacharach and the Bee Gee's (still some of his favourite music). While his brother veered off the classical path in the direction of the electric guitar, Ashley took up composing and had ambitions of being the next Beethoven, as one does. His interest in classical music was sparked by Nigel Kennedy's recording of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. Twenty years later, the world's leading clarinet manufacturer, Buffet-Crampon, has labelled him 'A rising star. The Kennedy of the Clarinet'. The Kennedy reference might be due to a shared combination of talent and hair style.

Ashley was accepted as a composer into the University of Western Australia AMEB Academy at the age of thirteen. Studying under Allan Meyer, he went on to complete a B. Mus in clarinet performance with First Class Honours. For his graduation recital he received a perfect score, performing Berio's Sequenza IX from memory. Upon graduation, he was showered with prizes and medals and was even nominated for the J.A. Wood Prize, the University's most prestigious honour.

In 2008 he entered the Australian National Academy of Music and his commitment to contemporary composition came very much to the fore. In 2009 he won the judges and audience prizes at the ANAM Concerto Competition; he played Ross Edwards' Clarinet Concerto for the competition and since then has performed it with three of Australia’s professional orchestras. In 2010, Ashley was the first woodwind player to be accepted as an ANAM Fellow. For his fellowship project, Ashley performed the complete clarinet works by Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg, whose music Ashley finds deeply fascinating. His Melbourne premiere of the Lindberg Concerto with Brett Dean and the ANAM Orchestra was ranked amongst The Age newspaper's Top 5 Classical Performances 2010. Ashley was subsequently invited to perform the Lindberg Clarinet Quintet at the gala concert of the World Congress of Chamber Music Competitions.

At Yale, where he is on a full scholarship, Ashley is studying with clarinettist David Shifrin, and is himself an instructor in undergraduate clarinet studies. He is already a winner of the Yale Chamber Music Competition and was a finalist in Yale’s Woolsey Hall Concerto Competition. In both instances Ashley presented the US premieres of works by Australian composers. Ashley also freelances with various New York ensembles, including Le Train Bleu and Exhaust and has appeared in recital throughout the USA, including the Kennedy Centre in Washington D.C. Ashley also performs regularly with his duo partner, Australian pianist Aura Go, with whom he has performances scheduled in the USA, Canada and Europe.


Ashley writes: ‘The audition and interview for the Freedman took place at 8pm Monday (10am Tuesday in Sydney) and Jo Smith from the MCA asked if she should ring me that night to let me know the outcome. My friends, housemates and I sat up until 1am in the morning, when Jo Skyped me with the wonderful news that I had won the fellowship.’

With the Freedman Fellowship Ashley will study the most significant new repertoire for the clarinet with three internationally leading composers: Jorg Widmann, Jukka Tiensuu and Magnus Lindberg. The Freedman Fellowship will allow Ashley the opportunity to pursue performance development alongside these composers and then to prepare recordings and a recital tour of the repertoire in Finland, the USA and Australia.