In Memoriam - Gregg Smith (1931-2016)

By Raymond Beegle
Monday, July 18, 2016

Gregg Smith

Gregg Smith

At the end of the Second World War Los Angeles and neighboring towns were still haven and home to many great Europeans who had fled Hitler’s devastation: Thomas Mann, Lotte Lehmann, Bruno Walter, Fritz Zweig, Stravinsky, Schönberg, and numerous others of slightly lesser rank. This was also a fairy tale time when classical record companies were not part of corporate conglomerates, and their executive officers were not primarily merchandisers, or Philistines, or owners of sports teams, but men who actually knew something about music, men of good taste and, broadly speaking, of principle. For roughly three decades, 1950 through the 1970’s, record companies had money, sometimes lots of money, to spend not only on Beethoven symphonies but on a broad repertoire ranging from Machaut to Ligeti. There was also a knowledgeable supporting public aligned with the values and moral vision reflected in our centuries old musical tradition. All of this equaled “the right place at the right time” for many brilliant and enterprising young minds, and Gregg Smith was among them.

The confluence of events that led to his stunning record output began with his sixteen-voice choir, The Gregg Smith Singers, winning first place in an international choral competition. This harvested a contract with a distinguished American concert management, extensive tours, and enough renown for smaller record companies to produce a variety of his albums ranging from folk songs, works of Bach and Schubert, to prominent and emerging American composers such as William Schuman, Lukas Foss, Samuel Barber, Aaron Copeland, Morton Feldman, Roger Sessions, and Gregg Smith himself. His interest in 20th century composers, his remarkable ability to grasp the structure and meaning of the most complicated scores, as well as his unparalleled sense of pitch soon gained the attention of Columbia Records.

Sometimes as a keyboard player, sometimes as a chorister, and always as a close friend of Gregg Smith, I took part in the Columbia recordings of works by Billings, Ives, Irving Fine, Stravinsky, Schönberg, and Gabrieli. Now, in my later years as a teacher and critic, I take the opportunity to relive some events, share some anecdotes, and offer a little commentary as well.

Regarding Gregg’s sense of pitch, I remember, not as clearly as I would like, one rehearsal of either Webern or Schönberg, conducted by Robert Craft. The brilliant violinist Israel Baker was in the ensemble, and when there was a pitch problem in the chorus due to a complex and many voiced sequence of chords, Craft could not get at the cause. He asked Baker, who could not help, and when they turned to Gregg I recall their astonishment when he said (something like) “the second alto is a bit under, here, the first baritone rides a little high there, and there is a slight tremolo in the second soprano line in such and such a measure.” When these flaws were set right the passage rang like a bell and everyone applauded. The brilliant tone, which Gregg evoked from a choir, stemmed from this acute sense of pitch, and his demand that the individual singer find the exact center of the note, and shear the excess vibrato that oscillated above and below it.

The Stravinsky Conducts Persephone recording took place in a Masonic temple on Highland Avenue in Hollywood. Living up to Hollywood aesthetics, the huge auditorium was cluttered with exotic columns decorative murals and a rainbow assortment of lights. The forces of the large choir and orchestra were placed at the center, and in this rather bizarre setting it was impressive to see the hubbub of chattering musicians fall silent when a session began. There were difficulties from the beginning, as the sweet voiced tenor soloist, Michele Molese didn’t know his music. While other passages were being recorded, he was taken downstairs to a small room where the proper notes and rhythms were pounded into his head. He would then emerge, sing his passages, and, no doubt, promptly forget them, but the necessary task was accomplished. Other problems centered on the great Stravinsky himself, octogenarian, easily tired, and often out of sorts. Tempos and dynamics were set in rehearsal by his assistant, Robert Craft, and then Stravinsky was placed on the podium to give a downbeat. Usually that was all one had to go on, as there were precious few cues and no dynamic indications. I remember his appearance, thin and stooped, while being helped into the studio by producer John McClure. All that fiery genius in that tissue paper envelope of a body! When he walked he did not lift his feet, but shuffled along, holding on to McClure’s arm; I noticed that his shoes did not have the creases that naturally develop from taking real steps, and thought of Matthew Arnold’s lines from “Growing Old,” “…the last stage of all – to hear the world applaud the hollow ghost which blamed the living man.” The atmosphere was especially brittle during run-throughs before takes. Robert Craft on the podium was not a beatific presence. Years later when I read in Fischer-Dieskau’s memoires “…Craft would sometimes tell Stravinsky to shut up…” I thought to myself‘It must be true.’ Still, the result of everyone’s labor was something wonderful: The pulse of the orchestra, thanks, mostly, to the brilliant musicians themselves, is forceful, the edges of attacks sharp; the intonation immaculate, the choral sound robust and opulent. One realized the historical significance of this event, and sensed that the narrator, soloist, chorus, and orchestra, each in turn, infected the others with a palpable zeal and commitment that far surpassed any ordinary feeling of professionals doing their professional duties.        

Long Island Symphonic Choral Association (LISCA), of which Gregg Smith was the founder and Conductor Emeritus

Long Island Symphonic Choral Association (LISCA), of which Gregg Smith was the founder and Conductor Emeritus

The two albums entitled The Glory of Gabrieli, were recorded in Venice’s great byzantine style Cathedral of St. Mark, where the works were first performed by Gabrieli himself. I remember our first approach to mysterious Venice by gondola at sunrise after a long night’s train ride from Berlin, and seeing the piazza as we reached the Serenissima landing. It was like an apparition. That collection of curiously shaped buildings seemed to have miraculously popped up from the sea for no reason at all, and again, for no reason at all, would sink into it once again. The recordings took place from midnight to 4:00 AM because those were the only hours that the campanella was silent. This strange schedule of sleeping during the day and going into the cathedral by night added to the mystique of the project. I remember especially how an unearthly passage for solo violin spun through the expanses of the church while I lay on the floor, staring up at the magnificent, golden angel mosaics. Unfortunately the sound ambiance we experienced during the sessions was considerably diminished in the recording itself because of the close microphone placement. The organ used, rather modest in size, was imported from Germany especially for this project because the stout 19th century cathedral organ was in such bad repair. The ecclesiastical higher ups, just to remind everyone who was boss, would sometimes enter the church in the middle of takes, and the creaking of doors and scraping of feet would render our work unusable. I remember also that every female of the orchestra and chorus was required to wear a white nurse’s uniform on those evenings, to make certain they were “decently covered.”

The happiest of all these productions was the Grammy Award winning Continental Harmony of William Billings. Recorded in the same garish Hollywood “temple” as Persephone, the singers, taking pleasure in music from the roots of their own culture, sang with such consummate ease, joy, commitment – inspiration, in a word– that virtually no retakes or inserts were required.

This joy of making the music of one’s roots was also evident in the two albums Charles Ives: Music for Chorus, and New Music of Charles Ives. If Billings represents the first shoots of transcendentalism that flowered in subsequent generations, Ives is perhaps the final, and greatest expression of that ideal. I remember the wild collisions of orchestral vocal and harmonies in “General William Booth Enters into Heaven,” the complex rhythms and volatile tempo changes disguising a highly organized work intended to describe chaos and hysteria. Gregg was quite at home in chaos – chaos, which he often created himself - but hysteria was not part of his make-up. He was always the eye of the storm, and possessed the uncanny ability to pull forces and personalities into a unity with his vision and spirit at the center.  We recorded this massive amount of highly difficult music in only two days, with chorus members and musicians coming and going according to an intricate schedule. It was like a depot at rush hour until the downbeat, when clarity appeared, and the marvelous works took shape, coming to vibrant life. A particular moment stands out in my mind. It is perhaps one of the most powerful few seconds in all of my memories. In the “Harvest Home Chorales” there is a passage where the accompanying brass instruments drop out, and the chorus sings at full voice “new praises from our lips shall sound.” As they are singing, the organ sustains, pianissimo, a chord made up of a major and a diminished triad. It is a haunting, otherworldly chord representing, to my mind, something floating, something both not yet born and at the same time eternal. The chorus falls silent, but the chord, present before but unheard until this point, is sustained. The chorus repeats, “…shall sound,” covering the organ once more, and then again falls silent as the chord remains. I remember being so overcome by the power of the words and the great musical idea behind them, that it was almost impossible for me to keeps my fingers placed securely on the keyboard.

I have Gregg Smith to thank for that moment, a recorded document of my best thoughts and feelings. I have Gregg Smith to thank for many things: for the sharing of his genius in the service of music, for his generosity to me and to many, for his making a musical scene that had not previously existed, and for his example of good will and hope and steadfastness in every aspect of life, that to my knowledge, never wavered. 

Raymond Beegle reviews classical music and opera for the New York Observer and Fanfare Magazine. For many years he was Contributing Editor of Opera Quarterly, the Classic Record Collector (UK), and also appeared on The Today Show (NBC) and Good Morning America (CBS). As an accompanist, he has collaborated with Zinka Milanov and Licia Albanese.  Currently Mr. Beegle serves on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music in New York City.