RIP Gregg Smith

[UPDATE: New York Times obit.]

For a few years in the early Nineties I was the rehearsal pianist for the Gregg Smith Singers. It was fabulous training. Everything was new to this Wisconsin farmboy! My girlfriend was a Smith singer, and touring was a madcap adventure that lived on scandal and gossip.

Most important was the music itself, of course. Through that job I briefly met many composers, including several that have gone on to be important in my more recent studies: Hale Smith, Louise Talma, William Duckworth, and Leo Smit.

I played piano for a few pieces in performance. The best was Irving Fine’s The Choral New Yorker, which lay the groundwork for my eventual centennial overview. I remember Gregg telling me that he thought that Irving Fine and Ravel had the best command of harmony, that each chord in their works was a jewel. (“Jewel,” ok, but “best” is a highly debatable opinion.)

Gregg loved all sorts of music, and addition to a steady diet of modern choral composition he would give masterclasses in the Monteverdi Vespers. I asked a lot of questions, and he was always very kind. There was one point when I kept him after rehearsal to look at something in the score of Vespers. Gregg must have liked my enthusiasm for learning, for he suggested I play Hindemith’s The Four Temperaments with orchestra at his music festival in Saranac Lake. I refused, thinking (quite rightly) that it was beyond my capabilities.

One time a percussionist didn’t show for a performance of a Charles Ives Psalm, so I stepped in to play the chime part. It didn’t go so well, and afterward Gregg teased me about how uneven the “bings” and “bongs” were.

For theatrical effect, I was playing the chimes from the back of the hall (not that excuses my performance). Indeed, it was Ives that gave Gregg the inspiration for “Music in Space,” perhaps his most distinctive contribution to latter-day choral music. All of the “Space” repertoire was interesting, but I particularly remember Leo Smit’s sparkling round “Lenten is Come,” sung by the chorus in four (?) parts spread around the venue.

Wow, this brings back memories! “Music in Space,” by God. I just placed an order for the CD to hear this repertoire again. Looking at the tracklist, I’m sure I was the rehearsal pianist for everything, in some cases for the choir’s premiere performance.

It was a great couple of years for me, working with Gregg, his wife Rosalind Rees, and the rest of the singers. Roz had a beautiful voice and was very easy to accompany in her solo features. Another personality that stood out was Walter Richardson, an African-American basso profundo who brought down the house with “Old Man River” at the “cabaret” gigs. We would change keys depending on how low he wanted to go that day.

And of course there was Karen Goldfeder, my girlfriend and soon-to-be first wife. Impossible to believe this was all over twenty years ago!