Gregg Smith, conductor, composer, and founder of the Gregg Smith Singers, died on Tuesday July 12, 2016.Read: Gregg Smith, Choral Leader Who Elevated Standards, Dies at 84 - The New York Times
Gregg Smith founded the Singers in 1955, when he was a graduate teaching assistant in the music department of UCLA. In 1958 the group took its first step toward international recognition with a European tour that included an appearance at the Brussels World's Fair.
Soon after, the Singers came to the attention of Igor Stravinsky, and in 1959 they began a 12-year association which ended with Gregg Smith traveling to Venice, at the family's request, to prepare the chorus and orchestra for Mr. Stravinsky's funeral.
The Singers made a second European tour in 1961 which culminated in a spectacular concert at the Edinburgh Festival and a subsequent Time magazine article. A national touring contract followed, and, to date, the Singers have made 38 national tours, plus a dozen European tours, three tours of the Far East, and a trip to Mexico to perform and record contemporary choral music of Mexico for Newport Classics.
The Singers’ commitment to performing works of living composers and contemporary music, can be seen in the following achievements. In 1973, the Gregg Smith Singers initiated both its New York City concert series and the Adirondack Festival of American Music (AFAM) in Saranac Lake, N.Y. Both programs have continued annually and provide the major sources for development of the Singers' American repertoire. In addition, the concert programs have presented a representative selection of traditional European choral literature. Still, American choral music accounts for roughly 70% of the Singers' overall programming. It may also be important to note that, on average, the Singers perform four premieres at every program. The summer of 2006 marked the final season of AFAM — after 33 years. However GSS’s New York City Concert Series continues. This 2007-2008 season marks its 36th year and is distinguished by the NEA American Masterpieces Festiaval — 5 choirs in 4 concerts celebrating The Gregg Smith Singers Legacy.
The Singers have received recognition throughout their existence, including three Grammy awards, two Montreux awards and the Stereo Review 1966 Record of the Year award for their Columbia recording of the music of the Revolutionary American composer, William Billings. Other awards specifically honor Gregg Smith's dedication to contemporary American music. For example, Gregg Smith and Robert Shaw are the only choral conductors to receive the Alice M. Ditson Conductor's Award. In 1988, the Singers were presented with the Berliavsky Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters for the group’s tremendous support of American music. In 1992 and 1996, the ASCAP Chorus America Award was presented to the Singers "for adventuresome programming of contemporary music". In 2001, Chorus America awarded Gregg Smith and the Singers the prestigious Margaret Hillis Award for choral excellence and in November 2003, the American Composers Alliance gave Gregg Smith their Laurel Leaf Award for distinguished achievement in fostering and encouraging American music. Most recently, at the Chorus America National Convention in June 2004, Gregg Smith was chosen to receive the Louis Botto award for Entrepreneurial Spirit, presented “for a lifetime of devotion to choral music and unflagging creativity in finding ways to bring it to a broader public, through outstanding performances, recordings and the preservation and dissemination of choral manuscripts."
The primary mission of the Gregg Smith Singers is to encourage the development and preservation of American choral music, with an emphasis on new works of the 20th and 21st centuries, through performances, recordings, workshops and publications.
Gregg Smith provides the artistic vision of the Singers and programming is always selected with a mind to championing new American choral music and celebrating its rich tradition. In his experience, too many Americans have lost their sense of history, and he believes that the beauty of choral music can do so much to revive our understanding of American culture, past and present.
The Singers are one of the most recorded classical choirs in the world with over 130 albums, cassettes, and CDs produced during their existence. Over 90 of these are of contemporary American choral music. Although the Singers have offered hundreds of workshops for conductors, singers and teachers in the past, the main focus in recent years has been toward composers - mainly in the form of readings. In the past decade they have read nearly 300 new works and performed and recorded 60 of them. Finally, the Singers have been instrumental in obtaining publication of many of these composers' works, especially with the aid of their recordings. This effort has enhanced the distribution of new American choral music to knowledgeable conductors, orchestras and choruses.
I am told by various relatives that I was actually composing at the age of five. The story they tell is that when called to dinner I would always procrastinate, asking for just a few minutes more to write out some additional notes. But my real memories of myself as a composer start around the age of 17. Having heard Milhaud’s Suadedos de Brazil, I wanted to write a couple of South American piano pieces of my own. The result was a suite called From the Rio. It was a very good effort for a 17 year old.
Soon after, I moved to California where I enrolled at UCLA and also joined an amateur adult choir conducted by a fine high school director named Jim Burt. He was very encouraging of me as a composer, trying out a few things of mine with his adult choir and then performing two Keats settings with his High School group. It was my first real public performance.
It was while I was at UCLA that a young teaching assistant, Irving Becker, put me in touch with a great composition teacher for private study, Leonard Stein, who was a disciple of Arnold Schoenberg and did extensive work with the master during his last years in Los Angeles. The next four years were my great education in all aspects of music.
I graduated with my BA in Music in 1954 and subsequently received a teaching fellowship, which enabled me to pursue advanced studies. I went for a Master’s degree in Composition and had Lukas Foss as my major teacher. At the same time I became involved in choral conducting (Leonard Stein felt strongly that I should have a performance outlet in addition to composing). A wonderful choral director at UCLA, Raymond Moreman, felt I had good potential as a conductor and got me my first choral position, a Japanese Methodist Church in West Los Angeles.
That church job gave me opportunities to write for the choir and, in fact, my Master’s thesis ended up a large work for small church choir based upon the Seven Last Words of Christ. It was during this time that I got my professional chorus, The Gregg Smith Singers, started when Mr. Moreman arranged for me to take a group, arrange and record music of Stephen Foster as a background for a TV Bio of that composer. We had a good success with the project and decided to stay together and have remained so ever since (1955).
Throughout my composing life I have been fortunate to write for specific groups or concert events. In the late 50s I wrote several works for the Gregg Smith Singers including an a cappella suite, Landscapes, a whole album of Christmas arrangements called “Christmas Around The World “ for Crown Records, and one of my 1st major choral works, a Magnificat for chorus, brass and strings. I also wrote a Harp Sonata for a Los Angeles harpist.
In the early 60s I wrote a choral work for the Monday Evening Concert series, Secular Canticle for chorus, violin, oboe and piano. In 1961 I created another choral album, this time for Everest records — an American Folk Song record. In the same year I received a major contract from G. Schirmer and they subsequently published most of my Christmas and American Folk song arrangements as well as Landscapes. In 1963 I wrote the Bible Songs for Young Voices for the Texas Boys’ Choir. It was premiered at the L.A. Music Center. I then wrote a Christmas opera, The Other Wise Man for Chorus, Narrator and Chamber Ensemble.
In the Mid 60s I moved to Ithaca College to head their choral program. The college gave me quite a few opportunities to create new works. These included the Festive Song for chorus and wind ensemble, Toccata del Rio for two pianos and a jazz Sanctus for the college jazz group and chorus.
In the 70s I became a permanent resident of New York City. Compositional highlights for this period include Grand Palindrome in C for orchestra — premiered by the Brooklyn Philharmonic, a series of spatial Sound Canticles for the Gregg Smith Singers, a second Magnificat, this time for chorus, harp, six percussion and two pianos, three chamber works for soprano and 2-5 instruments and two works for soprano & large orchestra, Lullaby and A Time for Every Purpose. During the latter 70s and early 80s I also orchestrated and recorded five musicals of Victor Herbert as well as Gershwin’s Blue Monday.
The 80s included an NEA composer’s fellowship, which resulted in a ballet for chorus and orchestra, The Continental Harmonist based on music of William Billings. It was subsequently recorded for Premier Recordings. I also wrote a Christmas work for Male Chorus, Harp & Strings commissioned by the New York Gay Men’s Chorus called Good Cheer and a work commissioned by the New York Treble Singers for women’s choir, soprano solo and violin and piano called To Reach for the Stars. At the end of the decade I received a commission from the New York State Council for the Arts to write a children’s opera — the result was Rip Van Winkle, a work that has had almost a dozen performances to date.
The 90s were filled with many commissions as follows:
But certainly the most important work of the 90s was a commission from the Cathedral Choral Society of Washington DC for which I wrote a one-hour Earth Requiem for large chorus, symphony orchestra, solo quartet and children’s choir. It was the first of the William Strickland commissions, which are given every five years. The Washington Post said that the work was perfect for this inaugural event. In May, 2001 Earth Requiem was given 3 performances, including the New York premiere, in Long Island and New York City.
In 1998 I became composer in residence for Saint Peter’s Church, NYC and to date have written seven choral works and two pieces for solo voices for them. An Easter anthem Seven Stanzas at Easter, based on an Updike poem which I wrote for Saint Peter’s in 1995 has recently been published by E.C. Schirmers.
In April 2001 my third children’s opera was premiered in New York with the Gregg Smith Singers and the Central Park East School. The Dream eater was commissioned by the Annenberg Foundation and is the culmination of five years of working in this very special elementary school in East Harlem. In response to 9/11/2001, I completed a choral setting of a poem of Nancy Murphy In Memoriam: Singing Our Sorrow at Ground Zero. This was premiered by the Gregg Smith Singers in November, 2001 and received a fine New York Times review. In February 2002 the New York Treble Singers premiered my Jamaican Songs based on the poetry of Jamaica’s poet laureate, George Campbell. 2002/03 brought the commissioning of Emily’s Autumn, a cycle of five settings of Emily Dickinson, for Nancy Menk and the South Bent Chamber Singers, which was premiered in the spring of 2003 when I was also awarded an honorary doctorate by Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana.
In 2005, I fulfilled two commissions: a setting of Thoreau, I fear no foe commissioned for the choir of Belmont Hill School in Massachusetts and premiered in April, 2005 and Songs from a Liberal Heart, an anthem for mixed choir and instruments commissioned in honor of Watson Bosler on the 25th anniversary of the Memorial Vespers at Saint Peter’s Church. The premiere was on All Saints Day in November 2005.
In 2001, Chorus America awarded Gregg Smith and the Singers the prestigious Margaret Hillis Award for choral excellence and in November 2003, the American Composers Alliance gave Gregg Smith their Laurel Leaf Award for distinguished achievement in fostering and encouraging American music. Most recently, at the Chorus America National Convention in June 2004, Gregg Smith was chosen to receive the Louis Botto award for Entrepreneurial Spirit, presented “for a lifetime of devotion to choral music and unflagging creativity in finding ways to bring it to a broader public, through outstanding performances, recordings and the preservation and dissemination of choral manuscripts.”
I estimate that I have written over 400 works large and small including about 50 instrumental works of varying types. About 100 of the 400 works have found their way onto recordings.