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Critic's notebook

Recalling a conductor who built grandly at home

Email|Print| Text size + By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / February 2, 2008

Boston's musical community turned out in force Thursday night to honor the memory of one of its leaders. Craig Smith, the founder and artistic director of Emmanuel Music, died last November. Thursday would have been his 61st birthday.

Smith arrived at Emmanuel Church in 1970 and spent almost four decades building its resident ensemble and chorus into a not-so-secret treasure of local musical life. Its repertoire runs from the sacred works of Heinrich Schütz to the contemporary music of John Harbison, but its mother tongue is Bach, which it sings with an eloquence honed by the weekly performance of a cantata - yes, every week - in the liturgical frame of the Sunday service.

Thursday's memorial program at the church interwove performances by the choir and ensemble with vivid tributes from Smith's closest friends and colleagues. What emerged was a moving portrait of a gifted, intuitive musician and a vibrant Falstaffian figure, one who ambled through life with a certain rumpled grandeur, a sense of humor by turns whimsical and wicked, and a gloriously resolute faith in the ability of music to both anchor a community and nourish the individual soul.

The large crowd heard reminiscences of the early days, when Smith showed up as a red-cheeked 22-year-old from Idaho with an overwhelming passion for Bach, to the point that he would seek out numbers of the cantatas in the license plates of passing cars. The compensation for musicians was little more than Sara Lee coffee cakes; the parts on their stands were little more than cut-up photocopies of a score.

But the cantatas came together so well that, very early on, Smith had the outlandish idea of performing the entire cycle of Bach cantatas, something that had never been done before, let alone by a modest church-based ensemble. Since then, Emmanuel has traversed the full cycle not once but twice. His vision and conviction drew into the church's orbit dozens of young and idealistic musicians whose talents he nurtured, among them the baritone Sanford Sylvan and the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who arrived at Emmanuel as a violist. Sylvan spoke movingly on Thursday night, wondering whether, without Smith's inspired leadership, "Lorraine would have put her viola away forever" in order to pursue what became a celebrated vocal career. Sylvan also wondered: "Would Peter Sellars ever have staged an opera without puppets in it?"

Sellars and Smith collaborated on radical and now iconic stagings of Mozart's Da Ponte operas, and Smith also forged a productive relationship with the choreographer Mark Morris, leading the premiere of Morris's "L'Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato" in Brussels, where he served as principal guest conductor of the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie. But as many speakers noted, he was not the kind of musician intoxicated by the prospect of worldly fame. He had an old-fashioned work ethic and a belief that his calling lay in building more deeply and more broadly in his own backyard. In an era of jet-setting celebrity maestros, it is Smith's ennobling of the task of everyday music-making in one's own community - and his demonstration of the artistic standards to which it can aspire - that strikes me as the most important aspect of his legacy.

The fruit of that legacy is the outstanding chorus of Emmanuel Church, its ranks swelled on Thursday by alumni who returned for the occasion. They sang, naturally, a Bach Cantata (BWV 127), works by Schütz and Schubert, and a remarkably delicate and tender "Ave Verum Corpus" (K. 618) by Mozart. What will become of this chorus and Emmanuel Music more generally is a wide-open question. Fortunately the group has built up its board and broader institutional scaffolding in recent years, and John Harbison has stepped up to serve as acting artistic director. Together with conductor Michael Beattie, they are presiding with apparent confidence over the transition. Meanwhile, a search committee for a new artistic director is being formed.

But on Thursday night, the focus was almost entirely retrospective. If Smith's life was cut short, these tributes and performances suggested that it was also a life intensely realized. The pianist Russell Sherman cited a phrase from Rilke about the "unlived lines" on a person's face. He added simply, his voice dropping to a reflective whisper, "I don't remember any lines on Craig's face."

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

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