You Are Most Welcome

JeffQuartets

One of 15 commissioned by The Crossing to honor the memory of their co-founder Jeffrey Dinsmore, I chose the text of my setting from his emails to me. Jeff passed away two years ago, much too soon. Donald Nally, The Crossing’s conductor, is of course their most visible leader. But he has said that Jeff, with whom he started the group 11 years ago, was the real behind-the-scenes drive, filled with ideas and energy. He was also the possessor of a beautiful, softly luminous tenor voice which I loved to hear.

Our instructions were to write short, unaccompanied, non divisi SATB works, so that they could be sung by a choir or by four people. You Are Most Welcome comes in at about three and a half minutes.

I forget, now, who the “him” is in the text, but I think it was either a poet or perhaps Richard Stone of Tempesta di Mare, during The Waking Sun project. The shots “from the recording” and the “higher resolution” refer to photographs Jeff took during the recording of Vespers.

Our daughter Priscilla, a member of Piffaro, was there, and I remember that photograph well. Jeff took it at the dessert-and-things reception laid out after the third and last night of recording the choir, a night interrupted by thunderstorms and power outtages, with the last bit of Vespers to be recorded—Psalm 27—the gnarliest and most difficult chunk left until the end. We just—just—got it finished by the 10 pm deadline, chewing through it phrase by phrase, sometimes bar by bar, the tension building alongside an intense calm the more difficult it got.

Yes, we all looked relieved, and Jeff was as cool and professional and happy as anyone.

Priscilla, ersatz raconteurThe night of the premiere of this and the 14 other works, 8 July 2016, at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, was a loving and moving remembrance of Jeff, who we miss still. While most of the evening’s works were performed by the full choir, Donald chose four singers for You Are Most Welcome, opening the concert with it. Thank you, Donald. Thank you, Jeff’s love Rebecca Siler, and Maren Brehm, Steven Bradshaw, and Dan Schwartz.

Philadelphia Inquirer review: “Kile Smith’s You Are Most Welcome musicalized e-mails from Dinsmore showing how a peripheral glance at a personality can reveal things that a more earnest portrait does not.”

You Are Most Welcome
music by Kile Smith
text by Jeffrey Dinsmore, from emails written to the composer

You are most welcome.

I hope all is well in the new year for you.
I know you aren’t finished yet,
but would you mind taking
a few minutes to chat with him?

I can give you much higher resolution.
I shot all the ones from the recording
so you can use whatever.
You can use whatever you want.
I love the shot of you and your daughter,
and yes, you look relieved.

On the way to you.

Should be soon.

Hope all is well.

Best,
Jeff

YouAreMostWelcomeP1a

Three Things I Learned from Being on the Radio

[First published in Broad Street Review 26 Jun 2016. Reprinted by permission.]

Heartfelt and tongue tied. (Illustration by Mike Jackson of alrightmike.com)

Drums and bass guitar fell by the wayside a long time ago. A combination of reasons explain it, but mainly, after a good spell of trying to play them, I realized that I wasn’t particularly good. It was a relief to find out—to others surely, but to me, especially. Dropping them allowed me to spend time on what I thought I really needed to do, which was to write music. I have discovered that in the 40 years since I needed as much time as possible to work just on that.

I have somewhat regretted not being a performer. Most composers are; that is, most composers can play the piano or some other instrument to at least a middling extent. Many excel; I honor them. Me, I’ve sung all my life in amateur choirs. That has helped me (I do believe) write choral music better, and has provided insight into music generally, but I have never experienced performing at a professional level (although playing bass in a ’70s jazz-fusion band did slip me billet-doux with whispered teases from that world).

I stumbled into performance, though, as a classical radio host. I realized it only when, after being on WRTI-FM infrequently for 10 years, and then, after filling in regularly for nine months—after which I was kicked upstairs to director of content, where I am now responsible for the programming, website, and audio production of the station—that on-air hosting is a performance.

I’ll continue to voice spots and to fill in live here and there, but now that I’m not on the air every day, I realize that the on-air host is a performer. So I may have some kinship with performing musicians after all. Here’s what I’ve learned.

1. Nobody cares how long you practice

Gennady Rozhdestvensky strikes fear into my heart. Whenever I see his name on a program log, I shudder, because I know I will have to say his name on the air. Now, I’ve botched a few pronunciations, but Gennady Rozhdestvensky I have practiced over and over. I once practiced saying, out loud, Gennady Rozhdestvensky five times in a row until satisfied, then turned on the mic, promptly said Gennady Roach Deaf Vent Keys, and then—and then!—tried to fix it.

At that moment, thousands of innocent people, driving or working or drinking coffee, but in any case grateful for lives wherein they could turn on the radio and hear classical music, heard me bludgeoning the beloved conductor Gennady Road Dead Fancies, Gennady Rose Fat Stinkies, Gennady Rooftop Shpilkas, over and over, so that, from Carlisle to Egg Harbor Township, from Scranton to Dover, they were now, coffee cup suspended halfway between table and lip, eyebrow-arch-listening to me, Jerry Lewis as the Disorderly Orderly, flayvin!, Gennady Roll Dem Phlegm Speed, lady…!

This is my memory of it. I have no idea how I got out of that break. All I know is that I didn’t dare say my own name for the rest of the shift.

The thing is, I know what happened. I was very proud that I had said Gennady correctly: gen-YAH-dee. Lovely. But pride goeth before awful, so I blithely, trippingly launched into Rozhdestvensky—with the result you see above. My betters nail it every time, but they’ve been nailing it for the 40 years I’ve been writing music, so slow down already, Smith, and stick to what you practiced, I should’ve.

Professionals and amateurs all practice, you see. The difference is this. Amateurs practice until they get it right. That’s what I did. Professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.

And that’s the No. 1 of what I learned.

2. Be yourself

I listen to other stations—KYW, WOGL, others—but I study the WRTI hosts, classical and jazz, and learn from all of them. Gregg’s excitement; Jack’s nuance; Kevin’s cadence; Jill’s empathy; Bob P., than whom no one on earth is more cool; Bob C., who could read a 7-11 receipt and make it sound like Kerouac; Jeff’s range; J. Michael’s trust: Everybody schools me. From intros to back-sells, from weather to time, from promo placement to what to say when you’ve been knocked out of your chair by a symphony or by a CD skipping, I learn from everybody.

I’d get my sea-legs sooner or later, they said, and it took me half a year, full-time, for that to happen. After 10 years’ subbing, it took that long. I still make mistakes; we all do; on every radio station mistakes happen. But from emoting, to laughing, to stretching, to finishing a complete sentence while introducing the next jock in the eight seconds before a hard break into the I.D. and news, I relaxed, finally, and became myself. That’s No. 2.

3. Nobody cares if you’re yourself

No. 3 is “Forget No. 2.” The advice to the young player is “Play the ink.” You got notes on the music stand; play the notes. Don’t go raising your hand or your expectation, “Do you want it louder or slower or how about if I…,” no. No. Play the notes. That’s your job.

On-air hosts have a program log, a spot log, and an arm-full of CDs. Calculate your timing, play the stuff you have to, calculate your timing, introduce everything correctly, hit your marks, calculate your timing, hit the hard breaks to the second, and by the way, calculate your timing.

Do that and you’ll be fine. Do that and relax, and you’ll be better. Do that, relax, tell us something we didn’t know in as few words as possible, bring your passion to all the thousands of listeners, each of whom feels like you’re speaking only to him, speak every word in love… and you’ll be fantastic.

These are the three things I’ve learned. And slow down, cowboy, at Gennady Rozhdestvensky.

America Returns the Favor: Theodore Thomas

On the next Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, July 2nd, 5–6 pm on WRTI-FM:

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893): Piano Concerto No. 2 (1879–80), Finale
Richard Strauss (1864–1949): Symphony in F minor, Op. 12 (1883–4)

American conductor Theodore Thomas in Cincinnati, 1902

American conductor Theodore Thomas, Cincinnati, 1902

For the last few months on Discoveries, we’ve looked at the beginning generations of American composers of orchestral music. In the last decades of the 19th century they began making their way to Europe—mostly to Germany—to study their craft, which they then brought back. MacDowell, Chadwick, Parker, Paine, and others are prime examples of this pilgrimage. Their legacy remains to this day, through their music and their students.

We’ll turn the focus now, however, from the American composer to the American conductor—specifically, to Theodore Thomas, who, living from 1835 to 1905, fits right into this time. As the first music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and as conductor of other ensembles including the New York Philharmonic and his successful Theodore Thomas Orchestra, he is the emblem of the burgeoning life of classical music in the U.S. Thomas is the first truly famous American orchestral conductor.

In another twist from our recent look at American music, we’ll hear two works from Europe that received their world premieres by Theodore Thomas—in America.

It may be that no composer’s career is completely smooth, and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s, although extremely successful, is no exception. Nikolai Rubinstein violently dismissed Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto to the composer’s face, but later completely changed his mind. In repentance he offered to premiere the Second Concerto. He would have, too, if he hadn’t died in 1881, so the world premiere went to Madeleine Schiller. She performed it in front of the New York Philharmonic that very year, conducted by Theodore Thomas.

Thomas was touring the U.S. with his own orchestra, mostly in cities with many German immigrants: Philadelphia, Cincinnati (where he also directed its conservatory and led its yearly May Festival), St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Chicago. His orchestra was to play Chicago one October night but arrived to find a large part of the city, including its intended concert hall, burned to the ground. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 had happened just the day before.

But Thomas was unstoppable. After two stints as New York’s music director in 1877–78 and 1879–1891, he worked with business leaders to found the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1891. He led it until his death in 1905.

Back to New York and the Philharmonic, in 1884 Richard Strauss was only 20 and by no means world famous. However, he was ferociously gifted and just happened to be a friend of Theodore Thomas. The world premiere of the Strauss First Symphony also took place in New York under Thomas’s baton.

And that hints at the other twist in this story of American classical music. It was natural that Theodore Thomas would know the music of Strauss and Tchaikovsky because Theodore Thomas, the first great American conductor, was born in Germany. His family emigrated to the States when he was 10, and so this reversed pilgrimage sparked America’s growth as an orchestral beacon to the world ever since.

The Bremen Town Musicians, for Orchestra

Orchestrated for narrator and small orchestra, 2016, for the English Symphony Orchestra, Kenneth Woods, conductor, and premiered 10 Jul 2016. 1111–1110-1perc-narrator-str. 8′

Original composed 2008. Violin, cello, narrator.From a story compiled by the Brothers Grimm; version by K.S.  (Program notes, text, and recording of original here.

Here’s MIDI audio of the orchestral version:

Click on the first page below for the entire score:

BremenOrchp1

The Greatness of Edward MacDowell

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, June 4th, 5-6 p.m.

Edward MacDowell (1860–1908): Piano Concerto No. 1 (1882)
MacDowell: Suite No. 1 (1888–93)

EdwardMacDowellAt the end of the 19th century, many thought that Edward MacDowell was the great composer America had been waiting for. He may have been. But if so, he was a great American composer cut down in his prime. The music of MacDowell is lyrical, vigorous, and at times gripping, but we get the feeling that we are witnessing the first blossoming of a great artist, one about to enter the later stages of a career that never happened.

His mother took the 17 year old to the Paris Conservatory. Already a prodigious pianist, he had taken lessons in his native New York City, even with the world-famous Venezuelan pianist/ composer Teresa Carreño. After top honors in Paris, he moved to Frankfurt, continuing with piano but also studying composition with Joachim Raff. He composed, performed, traveled, and met an impressed Franz Liszt in Weimar, who introduced him to the powerful music publisher Breitkopf & Härtel (which would publish MacDowell’s First Piano Concerto in 1911, three years after his death).

MacDowell also taught piano, and took on an American girl who had come to Frankfurt to study with the great Clara Schumann. Schumann was out of town at the time, though, so the school assigned Marian Nevins to MacDowell. Three years later they married.

The MacDowells moved back to the States in a few years, settling in Boston at the instigation of the pianist and conductor Benjamin Lang. It was a congenial place for MacDowell, who taught and whose work began to be performed by major ensembles. Both his First Piano Concerto and his first Suite for orchestra were premiered in that city, with Lang, in fact, conducting the concerto’s premiere. MacDowell had already composed the piece in Germany and had dedicated it to Liszt. The Suite was picked up by the Boston publisher Arthur P. Schmidt.

America was noticing Edward MacDowell, his success burgeoning from many solo piano pieces and songs. He did write a handful of orchestral works—a second concerto and the famous Second “Indian” Suite, some tone poems—but no symphonies. He moved back to New York City and became the first professor of music at Columbia University. Princeton gave him an honorary doctorate. He was one of the first elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He and his wife bought a summer home in New Hampshire.

All was not well, however. He had battled ill health of various, baffling forms for years, when in 1904 a horse-drawn cab ran him over as he crossed Broadway in New York. His physical recovery was hampered by severe depression and perhaps dementia. Dying four years later, his body was taken to be buried at his summer home, now the MacDowell Colony. His wife, by his side all though his illness, used the proceeds from his publications not only to establish the Colony, but to fund the work of other composers. Marian MacDowell, born in 1857, died in 1956.

Was Edward MacDowell the great American composer? For a time, yes, he may have been exactly that, a great composer cut down on the way to greatness. But even greater, his legacy enlivens countless artistic creators who live, work, and become a part of his beloved summer home.

I Didn’t Get Fired

wrtilogo“I haven’t heard you on the air for a while. Did they fire you?” she asked. “It’s worse than that,” I said. “They promoted me.” Day One of my new job as Director of Content at WRTI is in the books; I officially started my new job yesterday.

Director of Content is a funny title. I was hoping for Director of Intent but I never did get that Masters in Mind-reading. Content, for a radio station, means responsibility over all programming (for us, classical and jazz), over everything on the website and social media, and over audio production. I’ve been telling my friends that, basically, whatever they don’t like about WRTI, from now on, is my fault.

They’d been talking about a Director of Content position for a couple of years; I just didn’t know they had me in mind for it. I had, I thought, been getting somewhat better in the afternoon on-air classical shift as I filled in since late Spring of 2015, and so I applied for that position when they announced to fill it permanently. I didn’t get it. They hired the consummate professional and wonderfully nice guy Kevin Gordon, who has already been a terrific addition to our staff.

No, I didn’t get that. I got this!, and already I’m having fun, enjoying looking under the hood of this great radio station, WRTI, and seeing how we can make it better than ever.

Diners and Concerts: You Just Never Know

[First published in Broad Street Review 15 May 2016 and reprinted here by permission.]

Illustration for Broad Street Review by Mike Jackson of allrightmike.com

A diner is a diner, but you never know. In Cincinnati for concerts of Canticle, a new choral work of mine, I spied a diner in an indoor mall near the downtown hotel where I was staying. When I peeked in and saw peninsulas of counters bordered by padded stools, and when I saw waitresses wearing crisp, collared uniforms, with receipt books and straws at the ready in their apron pockets, I knew where I’d be having breakfast all week.

I don’t need to look at the menu; I already know what I want and I know they’ll have it. Scrambled eggs are what I want in a diner, and whether to accompany them with pancakes or French toast and bacon or sausage are my only decisions. Grapefruit juice, yes, which, oddly, I only ever drink in a diner. Of course, coffee, which is never in a diner what you would call fantastic, but which sometimes does the trick.

Even though I don’t need to, however, I always do look at the menu, and for two reasons. One is because, as I already said, you never know. A Greek-owned diner will have moussaka, but you wouldn’t know Greeks run it until you look at the menu. I’ve never had moussaka for breakfast, but it’s a good thing to know that you could have moussaka for breakfast if you wanted, don’t you think? In the south, grits, you bet, but not just the south. You can get grits in Hatboro. If you see chorizo sausage in a diner, get it, for no other reason than that diners have had chorizo before chorizo was a thing.

So on this, my first morning in Cincinnati, I sat at a counter and retrieved the menu from its metal clasp behind the salt/pepper/sugar/sugar-substitute caddy, and in the list of sides of breakfast meats I saw bacon, ham, Canadian bacon, sausage links, and sausage patties. And “goetta.”

Goetta. Hello.

In all my days I had never seen the letters of my native language arranged in this order. I stared at this word and slowly a smile crept across my face. I placed the menu down softly and looked up. Even though I didn’t know what goetta was, I knew I would order goetta. Anything on a menu I’ve never had is what I will order, and that’s the second reason I always look at the menu.

Getting into goetta

The crisp waitress, having already come by with the coffeepot as soon as I sat down, greeting me with, “Coffee?” (I said yes, and it was good…“no way,” I whispered to the cup), now came back.

“What can I get you?” She spoke in that welcoming Kentucky recitative, her question starting high on “What,” descending to “get,” and flipping back up again on “you.”

“Two scrambled eggs, French toast, and…,” taking a stab at saying “goetta,” said, “goat-uh? What is that?” I pointed to the list of meats.

She looked up from her receipt book. “Gedda.” Then she said, thoughtfully, “It’s meat….”

“It’s” descended to “meat,” which went down and then up again, but it stopped before it went as high as I thought it might. Her voice trailed off, signaling that whatever she was considering saying next was either too wonderful for me to grasp, or too difficult for her to relive. But the coffee had put me in an expansive mood, so in as encouraging a tone as I could muster, I said, “Uh-huh?”

Emboldened, she continued. “It’s ground beef,” she hesitated. “And ground pork,” halting again. “And,” running out of steam, she tried another angle, asking flatly, “Ever had scrapple?”

My eyes lit up. “Oh yes,” I answered helpfully, “I’m from Philadelphia, and I love scrapple!” This really doesn’t follow logically, since half of Philadelphians can’t stand scrapple.

“Well then,” she said, recovering her professional assurance, “you’ll like goetta.”

“Great!” I said, remembering as she turned, “and a small grapefruit juice?”

“Sure thing,” she said over her shoulder.

And it was great. Goetta is a lighter tan than scrapple, with a milder, earthy spice. Oat grains, instead of corn meal, hold it together, making it chewier. I later discovered that half of Cincinnatians can’t stand goetta. I felt at home.

The grapefruit juice factor

That week I loved other Cincinnati foods: Graeter’s ice cream, and spaghetti blanketed with chili blanketed with cheddar—with oyster crackers on the side—who knew? Whenever I’m anywhere, I look for the things that are there and not anywhere else.

I look for that in live music, too. There’s always that grapefruit juice factor, something that you get only in a concert. At the second of the Canticle concerts, at a section beginning with the words, “The little white dove has returned to the ark with an olive branch,” the choir hit a new level of honesty and intensity. I knew the music, of course, but I warmed inside at the commitment and love of these singers and this conductor.

And just then—right there, at those words—a bird started singing, loudly and liquidly and beautifully, outside an open window of the church. Beaming, incredulous smiles broke over the singers’ faces. I thought they would stop singing; the bird was that loud. We talked about it later, struggling for words. Audience members thought I had added a birdsong recording, like the one in The Pines of Rome; they told me that, I’m serious.

Something always catches you in a concert, if you pay attention. Performers glow with love or they beam at words that go deeper than we know. In your own piece, you think you know what happens next, but, well… you order scrambled eggs, and a bird sings. A diner is just a diner, but sometimes you talk to your coffee, and sometimes there’s goetta, and sometimes, as I said, you just never know.