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Mississippi Valley Orchestra’s Henry Charles Smith: truly a musician’s conductor

When musicians reflect on what it’s like to play under Smith, it’s the respectful way he shows them how to become better musicians.

Henry Charles Smith conducting the Mississippi Valley Orchestra during an April 9 practice.
MinnPost photo by Tony Nelson

On a Tuesday night in late March, Mississippi Valley Orchestra musicians return to their seats in the orchestra room of Henry Sibley High School. They’re back from a rehearsal break, and Paul Hindemith’s “Symphonic Metamorphosis,” on the program for their May 3 concert, sits on their stands.

Conductor Henry Charles Smith resumes the rehearsal with a bit of fine tuning, asking the musicians to listen to each other as they each choose a note in a major chord. Smith has them repeat the exercise in a couple of different keys, and at one point, the chord truly rings.

Smith beams.

“A major chord in tune? It’s a miracle. Considering all the time the world spends beating up on each other, it’s nice to agree on something.”

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The musicians are warmed up and sitting alert in their chairs, but Smith has Igor Stravinsky on his mind, perhaps a carryover from before the break, when he had commented that some of the dissonant surprises in Francis Poulenc’s “Gloria”also on their May program — made him think of Stravinsky’s music.

He shares an interesting fact: Stravinsky struggled with conducting his own music. Smith’s story, about Stravinsky guest conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra and the contingency plans that the musicians came up with in case he got hopelessly lost in the score, is funny and well told.

The best part of the story, though, is that it’s a firsthand account.

Ever since Henry Charles Smith agreed to lead their community orchestra last season, the musicians of the Mississippi Valley Orchestra have been transported to Smith’s rich musical past. They’re among the thousands of musicians in town and beyond whom Smith has generously invited into his experiences and guided with his baton.

Smith draws anecdotes from his days as principal trombonist with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the 1950s and ’60s, his years on the conducting staff of the Minnesota Orchestra spanning three music directors, and decades of music-making sessions with some of the finest artists in the world.

He has recorded with Glenn Gould, guest conducted major orchestras, and worked with virtuoso soloists such as Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman. For a couple of summers at Tanglewood, conductor Seiji Ozawa and composer-conductor Aaron Copland were his regular lunch buddies.

Smith’s musical résumé is impressive, but his stories aren’t delivered to impress. Rather, they’re about connecting musicians with the music they play, says Chris Hill, principal clarinetist with the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra, a professional orchestra that Smith led in the 1990s. Hill remembers Smith’s tales as well-timed and always related to the rehearsal. “It was never just gratuitous. We needed a break. It was a story that usually would be humorous, and it would help us play better.”

“These are stories that all of us musicians love to hear. It changes how a musician thinks about a piece of music,” says Roger Frisch, associate concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra. Frisch joined the orchestra in 1974, three years after Smith began his 17 years as assistant conductor, then associate conductor, then resident conductor.

‘Demanding without being demanding’

When musicians reflect on what it’s like to play under Smith, they don’t talk about his stories first. What seems to matter most to them is the respectful, skillful way he shows them how to become better musicians.

“He is demanding without being demanding; he’s gentle in the way he asks for things; he rehearses the group very, very thoroughly,” says Jim Straka, who plays principal French horn in the Mississippi Valley Orchestra and is its assistant conductor.

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Smith has perfected the art of gentle demands. He conveys what he wants from musicians through turns of phrase that Sheri Peterson, a first violinist in the orchestra, calls “Henryisms.” Her favorite: “That’s a beautiful F-sharp — just not there.”

“Almost gorgeous,” seems to be the classic Henryism, judging by how many musicians mention it when talking about Smith. Even though the members of the Mississippi Valley Orchestra have heard it more than once, his “That was almost gorgeous” after they play a section of Poulenc’s “Gloria” triggers grins.

Smith delivers such lines with warmth, never with an edge. Often, in the middle of difficult stretches of music, they seem part of a plan to get the musicians to relax. In addition to grins, there’s plenty of laughter.

As they rehearse a passage in the Hindemith in which the flute is very exposed, Smith lets flutist Nancy Wucherpfennig know she needs to follow him the second time a phrase is repeated: “Nancy, I give you permission to be totally fascinating. In the second one, we have to be fascinating together.”

‘A consummate educator’

Smith’s coaching is that of a master teacher, and it’s no surprise that the distinguished musician spends his Tuesday evenings rehearsing a community orchestra.

Throughout his career, alongside his high-level endeavors, he’s worked with amateur and aspiring musicians. He has founded and directed community choruses, orchestras and bands, judged competitions, conducted high school all-state orchestras and directed youth orchestras at Interlochen and Tanglewood. He also has held three university positions.

“He’s a consummate educator,” says flutist Judy Ranheim, who first met Smith at Interlochen Center for the Arts in 1962. She was on staff and played in the university division symphonic band and orchestra, both led by Smith. There, and through coordinating young artist competitions, she has had the opportunity to witness how he works with young people.

“He treats everyone not as kids or young players but as equals and colleagues in this path that we all have in pursuing music,” Ranheim says.

In the Twin Cities, she watched him work with adults when he directed the Bach Society. “He was a fabulous choral conductor. He whittled away at this raw body and made us sound wonderful,” she says.

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Also notable was the way he treated the singers in the chorus. “Even though you might feel as a member of his group that you are inexperienced or lack the knowledge that he has, he never is condescending,” says Ranheim.

Challenging repertoire

Smith isn’t condescending in his programming choices for the Mississippi Valley Orchestra, either. He has chosen challenging repertoire for them, such as Hindemith’s “Symphonic Metamorphosis,” which he says is standard fare for major orchestras — it was a tour piece when Smith played in Philadelphia — but not community orchestras. He says it’s excessively difficult for short periods of time, and is frequently used in auditions.

“I want to enable them to appreciate this great art and this great music that has been written for them — it’s for them as much as anyone,” he says.

Smith points out that other arts are not as readily accessible in a participatory way. “If you look at a great masterpiece on the wall, there it is and there you are, but the composer is waiting to be brought to life, and they’re the ones who can do it,” he says.

Smith says he hopes to enable the musicians of the Mississippi Valley Orchestra to play at as high an artistic level as possible and that the musicians are eager to learn. “They have to be asked, they have to be shown, but when they are asked and they are shown, they respond very well,” he says.

Jim Straka explains some of the ways Smith guides the orchestra. “During the course of a rehearsal, he will ask for a certain phrasing or a balance of voicing. Some of these things are very, very subtle and make a huge difference in what the orchestra sounds like,” he says.

“I think that that orchestra has never sounded as good as it does now,” Straka adds.

Crystal Koosman, a violist with the Mississippi Valley Orchestra, remembers first realizing Smith’s skill in shaping the orchestra while rehearsing Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” one of the first pieces Smith conducted with the group after he stepped in last fall when their director needed to step down.

“It wasn’t technically difficult, but every note had to be just so. It could sound like mud or it could sound like music. He really has a knack for taking this orchestra, where we all have day jobs, and really making musicians out of us,” Koosman says.

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Smith has worked his magic with professional orchestras, too. Chris Hill says Smith built the South Dakota Symphony to be a fine regional orchestra not through replacing players, as conductors sometimes do, but by raising everyone’s level of musicianship.

“He can get things out of musicians that I think others can’t. He can make people play way above their heads. It was really easy, when you had a concert, to go on stage. You knew that you were really well prepared,” Hill says.

Widely known as trombonist

The skills and subtleties that Smith teaches orchestra members are informed by his expert musicianship, which was first acclaimed more than 50 years ago when he played with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Douglas Wright, the Minnesota Orchestra’s principal trombonist, has worked with Smith since Wright moved to Minnesota 20 years ago, but he had known of him well before then.

“He’s known far and wide among the trombone community for the recordings he made and for the legacy he left as principal trombone of the Philadelphia Orchestra under [Eugene] Ormandy. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that his playing was ahead of its time in terms of his musicianship and his technical ability,” Wright says.

He remembers listening to the recording “Henry Charles Smith Plays Trombone” for the first time in junior high. “It was an inspiration for me from that moment on, because his sound was so pure, so beautiful, so easy.”

Smith’s principal trombone position in Philadelphia gave him credibility with the Minnesota Orchestra musicians, says Roger Frisch. “One of the most prestigious trombonists in the world trades in his trombone for his baton. We the musicians had a great deal of respect for Henry because he had been in the trenches,” he says.

Smith’s conducting style is clear in exactly the way musicians need a conductor to be, Frisch says, and that, he believes, is a direct result of Smith having been a playing musician. “You always know that the beat is going to be in the correct place. He’s going to show you the cues. He’s going to show you the musical line that he’d like to see,” Frisch says.

That might seem very basic, but Frisch explains that such communication isn’t always the case, even with some world renowned conductors. Smith also has the technical ability to speak with his baton, rather than needing to stop and explain. That, too, is not universal in the conducting ranks, Frisch says.

Wright joined the Minnesota Orchestra after Smith had left, but he has played under Smith’s baton, most recently as a soloist with the Mississippi Valley Orchestra.

Smith’s humility on the podium has made an impression on Wright. “He takes his ego out of it, which I think is actually an incredible trait for conductors. I think not enough of them do that. He respects the music that he’s working from too much to insert himself too far into the picture,” he says.

“I think he ultimately serves the music every time he stands up there,” he adds.

May concert features cellists Ross and Rapier

Smith is engaging the musicians of Mississippi Valley Orchestra not only through sharing the musical wisdom that he’s gleaned from a lifetime of making good music, but also by drawing on his Minnesota Orchestra connections. In rehearsals for their May concert, the string players are learning from music that has the bow markings of Anthony Ross, the principal cellist of the Minnesota Orchestra.

Ross and his wife, Beth Rapier, also a Minnesota Orchestra cellist, will be playing Vivaldi’s Concerto for two cellos with the orchestra, making it a three-principal season for the group. In the fall, John Snow was featured in one of Alessandro Marcello’s oboe concertos, and in the winter Wright played the trombone concerto of contemporary composer and trombonist James Pugh.

Some of the perks of working with Smith are more personal, like the weekly emails he sends the musicians. Violinist Annie Hanebuth says that sometimes Smith calls them love letters, and indeed they are full of love — for the musicians, for the music, for the music-making.

Some of Smith’s messages are congratulatory. “Raise your right arm toward the ceiling, palm toward your back. Now give yourself a huge pat on the back. Bravo!” Others, playful. “Big chamber music! Very French! Very piquant and saucy! Very sanctimonious! Very Poulenc!” They’re always warm, always positive. 

Smith says his emails are in the tradition of the late Robert Shaw, the celebrated choral and orchestral conductor. Shaw would write a letter to his singers after rehearsal and post it in the mail the next day. “He engaged every individual that way,” Smith says.

That’s important to do with a community orchestra, he says, then adds, “They’re only there because they want to be. I constantly like to remind them that the most important chair in the orchestra is the one they’re sitting in. Without them there’s a big hole.”

Looking forward to next year

The 84-year-old Smith has agreed to another season with the orchestra and in March started thinking about programming for next year.

Recent health struggles, though, led him to insist the orchestra secure what he says will be a “cover conductor” for him — the very role Smith played for Minnesota Orchestra music directors. He wants the peace of mind of knowing someone will be able step in for him, he says. So he has invited three candidates to conduct segments of rehearsals this spring.

After talking about these auditions, violist Crystal Koosman turns quiet for a few moments. That’s because she was contemplating the thought of playing under someone other than Smith, she says.

“Having someone of that caliber, you want to show up and learn everything you can from him. Somebody like that you learn just by being in their presence. It does make you want to work harder, practice more, so you don’t disappoint him,” she says.

Hanebuth shares similar sentiments. When her professional life turned busy, she decided to stop playing with another community orchestra because she wanted to be able to focus on making music with Smith.

“I don’t know how much longer he’ll work with us and he has so much to offer, but in return for what he has to offer, he’s asking a lot of us as well. And so it became more important to perfect what he was asking and to take in as much as I could, learn what I could, rather than missing the opportunity to be the best I can be.”

Karen Kraco is a Twin Cities educator and freelance writer/editor.

The Mississippi Valley Orchestra’s Sunday, May 3, concert is at 4 p.m. at Augustana Lutheran Church, West St. Paul.