Conductor  Lawrence  Leighton  Smith

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Lawrence Leighton Smith (April 8, 1936 - October 25, 2013), was an American conductor and pianist. 

Smith was born in Portland, Oregon. He studied piano with Ariel Rubstein in Portland and Leonard Shure in New York. He earned bachelor's degrees from Portland State University in 1956 and Mannes College of Music in 1959. He also earned a doctorate from the University of Louisville in 1992.

He won first prize in the Mitropoulos International Conducting Competition in 1964. He was assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera 1964–1967 and music director of the Westchester Symphony Orchestra 1967–1969. He was principal guest conductor of the Phoenix Symphony 1970–1973 and music director of the Austin Symphony 1972–1973. He served as music director of the Oregon Symphony 1973–1980 and the San Antonio Symphony 1980–1985.

Smith became the artistic advisor and principal guest conductor of the North Carolina Symphony 1980–1981, and music director of the Louisville Orchestra (1983–1994), then becoming laureate conductor for Louisville. He was also principal guest conductor of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra 1997–2000.

He was the music director of the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara from 1985 to 1993 and artistic director of the Yale Philharmonia at the Yale School of Music from 1995 to 2004. He became music director of the Colorado Springs Symphony in May 2000, and in 2003 he became the first music director of the new Colorado Springs Philharmonic. He also served as the music director of the Sunriver Music Festival in Oregon for over 17 seasons.

Smith guest conducted nearly every major orchestra in the United States, including the American Symphony Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. He also conducted orchestras in Europe and Asia.

As a pianist, Smith accompanied many famous artists, including Franco Corelli, Sherrill Milnes, Zara Nelsova, Ruggiero Ricci, Richard Stoltzman, Jennie Tourel, Renata Tebaldi, Walter Trampler, and Pinchas Zukerman. He also recorded the complete works for 2 pianos by Ferruccio Busoni, with fellow pianist Daniell Revenaugh (shown below).


Recordings include "The Moscow Sessions" for Sheffield Lab (for which he became the first American-born conductor to conduct the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra in 1986). He also made recordings for RCA Victor Red Seal. With the Louisville Orchestra, he made numerous contributions to its First Edition Recordings series, including works of William Bolcom, Marc-Antonio Consoli, John Corigliano, Brian Fennelly, Sofia Gubaidulina, Karel Husa, Otto Luening, Robert Xavier Rodriguez, Boris Pillin, Gundaris Poné, Gunther Schuller, Stephen Suber, Joan Tower, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.

Smith died from complications of Binswanger's Disease, a form of dementia in Colorado Springs, Colorado on October 25, 2013 at the age of 77.

==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

This interview was held in Milwaukee in April of 1996, while Smith was conducting performances of the Milwaukee Symphony.

He had just turned sixty, so that is where we began our conversation . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Are you where you want to be at sixty?

Lawrence Leighton Smith:   [Laughs]  I’m trying to figure out where one should be.  I’ve seen certain colleagues of mine, and they have these sixtieth celebrations.  In oriental philosophy, the sixtieth is a big deal, and of great importance, and you get a new status.  Here, it means that things are winding up and falling down.  As I talk to you about it, I’m not going to have a mid-life crisis.  I’m going to have a renaissance, a new birthday.  I’ve already started.  When I’m five days into my sixtieth birthday, and feeling younger every day, I play a lot of tennis, and do a lot of running, and try to keep myself in reasonably good shape.

BD:   Are you going to be like Dorian Gray, and get younger all the time?

LLS:   That was a great movie, but let’s hope it’s not quite that kind of thing.

BD:   In business and also in conducting, it seems that the age factor is no longer really a big deal, and that the older conductors are more venerated.

LLS:   Evidently so.  As long as we can wobble out there with some of our marbles, it’s going to work out because one thing we do have is experience.  We also know the repertory, and I find that it’s been easier to work with orchestras with more gray hair.  Somehow, you get a little more ‘respect’, like Rodney Dangerfield says, and that’s been good because when you’re young, the musicians are a little bit wary of what you have to say.  Now I find I don’t have any hassles with discipline.  People do what you say.  Whether they believe it or not is moot.  So, that part of it is really much nicer.

BD:   Are you a dictator on the podium?

LLS:   [Laughs]  Heavens, no!  I just talk a lot.  Actually, my theory is not to talk too much, and keep them playing.  The more they play, the less you have to talk, and the less they will talk.  That’s what you worry about.  If you talk a lot and start to fuss and fume, the orchestra all start to talk because they get bored of that kind of thing.

BD:   Do you find that the more they play things, it gets more into their system and into their psyche?

LLS:   Yes, sure!  We have two hands, and we supposedly show an awful lot with our hands.  That’s the whole idea.  So, I try to develop some kind of technique where everything I want I can usually show.  If something’s not quite right, I’ll stop, say a few things, and get right back to it again.

BD:   Especially with American orchestras, rehearsal time is always very limited.  Do you ever get enough rehearsal time, or perhaps even too much rehearsal time?

LLS:   That second part never happens.  We have now gotten used to four rehearsals, and when there’s two rehearsals per day, the first one lasts two hours and a half.  The second usually lasts two hours, and that’s part of the contract, so you really have to work things so it comes out that way.  I am here in Milwaukee, and this is an all-American program, and it
s pretty tough.  The Samuel Barber Essay for Orchestra, most orchestras know well, but Daniel Asia’s Piano Concerto is a brand new piece, and it’s long.  It’s not terribly hard for the orchestra, but its very hard for the pianist.  Our pianist, André-Michel Schub, is wonderful.  He plays non-stop practically for the whole piece.  The orchestra backs him more than actually having many tuttis.  But it is long, about forty-five minutes.  Then, the Aaron Copland Third is one of the most difficult in the repertory.

BD:   But I would think that orchestras would know that one at least a little.

LLS:   Stylistically Americans pick up on that, and this orchestra plays the spots off of it!  So after the first rehearsal I breathed a huge sigh of relief, and I said, “It’s going to be fine.”  Knock on wood, it turned out that it’s been quite easy, and they picked it up.  I asked when they had done the piece before, and it turns out to be only six or seven years before.  So, it’s in American orchestras’ blood now.  I have a feeling the Copland Third is the great American symphony of our age.  That’s arguable, but at least for me, somehow this wonderful Jewish man from Brooklyn could write the kind of music that embraces the whole country in style.  I think that’s quite extraordinary.

BD:   It stands out from all of the rest?

LLS:   It really does.  He developed this style.  In some of the earlier pieces, like the Piano Variations, he was going off in a different direction for a while, that was spiky.  Then he got to this more mellow American approach.

BD:   You’ve conducted in Russia, and in Europe.  Do you purposely take things like the Copland Third over there?

LLS:   Oh, I did, but I don’t think I will again.  We had this deal with Dmitri Kitayenko, as a trade-off.  He was going to do all the American works, and then I was to do all the Russian works.  It’s no problem to do Russian works over there
the Tchaikovsky Fifth, and the Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila of Glinka.  You stay of the way, and just let them do it.  If you give them a few ideas here and there, they play fabulously.  It’s the orchestra in Moscow, which is probably the second orchestra in Russia after Leningrad, now it’s St. Petersburg.  As to the American works, Kitayenko certainly knew them.  Coplands Appalachian Spring, The Incredible Flutist of Walter Piston (1894-1976), and some Gershwin, as well as The White Peacock of Griffes (1884-1920).  These are pieces which are bread and butter for us.

BD:   Nothing really avant-garde?

LLS:   No, nothing.

BD:   Did you help Kitayenko with his interpretations a little?

LLS:   He asked if that’s the way they went, and I said yes.  He had done his homework.  He must have heard recordings because there was nothing I needed to tell him that he was doing wrong.  It was mostly all right, but they had troubles with the Copland
not the metric changes, but the chordal triads, and balancing.  That was an unusual thing for them because they didn’t know really what it signified.  But it was successful.  It was very kinky because I did the Russian works and he did the American works.  We sold some copies, and it had wonderful engineering.  [CD set shown at left]

BD:   Were there also public performances, or just the recordings?

LLS:   We did a couple of PR-type things.  We did the recordings in a studio of the USSR State Television and Radio, but the building had no place for people to sit.  We arranged for an auditorium, invited the Mucky-mucks to come, and they all came.  We did do another concert three years later when I was invited back.  The idea was maybe to do a sequel where I would do the Copland Third, and it wasn’t quite so successful.  The players had trouble understanding the idiom of that piece.  We got to the Fanfare for the Common Man, which American brass sections play fabulously on big trumpets.  However, the Russians weren’t used to that kind of sound, having to go way high in the stratosphere on big trumpets, so they played on small trumpets.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But it doesn’t sound right that way, does it?

LLS:   It doesn’t sound the way we have come to know it.  I was trying to explain through an interpreter this
Common Man idea.  This was in Communist Russia, so it was a little difficult, and the interpreter thought I was talking about movie music.  They couldn’t quite get the gist of the fact that this was just down-home American music.  So, we had a big zero on that one.  But we did do a piece by Stephen Hartke (1952 - ), who is from California.  It was called Maltese Cat Blues, based on a tune by Blind Lemon Jefferson, “Oh, them rats is mean in my kitchen!”  This is really down deep bluesy stuff, but very modern, and hard, and they hated the piece.  They tried to get it, and finally gave a wonderful performance of it, but the whole thing added up to a not the best exchange we ever had.  I have not been invited back since!  [Laughs]  I don’t know... it just didn’t work out.

BD:   Now is it time for Kitayenko to come over here?

LLS:   An interesting thing happened.   That orchestra did tour over here.   Originally, he and I were going to do a podium exchange.  That’s when I had the Louisville Orchestra.  I’m now the Conductor Laureate, so I’m not Music Director in Louisville anymore.  Dmitri was supposed to come and do a program, but it didn’t quite work out.  Now he has two posts.  He defected and went to Scandinavia, and he also has one of the German radio orchestras.  So, he’s doing fine.  He loves it!  That orchestra toured, and they did a concert in Louisville, so I gave a reception for the orchestra, and for my board and their spouses, and my orchestra.  I had a huge house at the time and, of course, the Russians were looking around the house thinking these conductors really live high on the hog!  My ex-wife was a doctor, so that’s why we could live this way.  Anyway, in our huge house we had five hundred people, and all kinds of vodka.  Their  favorite thing was pizza.  A lot of them had never eaten pizza.  Anyway, the party really got pretty steamed up, and they had to get back on the bus to go to the Kennedy Center to do a concert the next night in Washington.  The KGB was looking around our bushes, and down in our basement to make sure that nobody had defected into our house!  I thought this was exciting, but when they got to Washington, three people defected from the orchestra at that point.  They went to Carnegie Hall, and two more defected.  So there were a lot of unhappy people in the orchestra.

BD:   Many years ago I saw a cartoon in a magazine...  Outside Carnegie Hall there was a big sign that said,
Russian Orchestra Tour Canceled.  A conductor was looking at it and said to a friend, “It’s too bad.  I need a flute and a second violin.”  [Both laugh]

LLS:   Some of that is still going on now.  I get letters from people who had defected, and they’re still trying to find orchestral positions.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let’s come back to your conducting.  You have, perhaps, a bigger repertoire than most other conductors.  So, from this huge array, how do you decide what you’re going to program?

LLS:   As the years go by I get guest dates, and there are certain pieces that I prefer doing.  I still have an immense lust for new music.  At Yale I’m the Distinguished Professor of Conducting
whatever that might bebut they let me off all the time because I’m on the road.  I’m in charge of orchestral activities there, and it’s a nice base of operations.  I have no orchestra of my own right now, so I do a lot of guesting, and I can’t just parade out all the contemporary works that I want to do.  This week in Milwaukee is wonderful because it’s an American concert, but next week I’m doing standard stuff with the New Jersey Symphony.  Then the week after that I’m doing a residence in Princeton of all new music readings.  Then, when I go to New Jersey again in May, we’re doing the Richard Danielpour Piano Concerto that we had done on the Absolut Concert.  That was an interesting series.  Absolut Vodka sponsored concerts in New York of contemporary music.  They would actually pay for this music.  The President of Absolut just loved new music.
BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Were they saying that you need to come a little tipsy to the concert?

LLS:   They were giving out samples of good stuff, that’s for sure!  So I did it for two years, and there were four commissioned works on each one of these concerts.  One was the Danielpour concerto, a handsome piece, a great big sprawling piece like the Barber Concerto, except with steroids.  It was even bigger than the Barber, and Christopher O’Riley played the spots off of it.  The work became very popular, so he and I are doing that piece on runout concerts in New Jersey in May.  So it did have its spin-offs.

BD:   When you get a new score, what do you look for that makes you say that you want to play this, or no, you’ll set it aside?

LLS:   It’s a gut reaction!  In American music, and especially in European music, it seems that the twelve-toners have had their day, and we have now what we call the ‘new romanticism’.  It’s spun off in different directions.  The minimalists have done their thing, and now we have tunes again, like David Del Tredici in his big Alice pieces.  It’s like Mahler, and it’s great.

BD:   Is this a good thing, a bad thing, or just a thing?

LLS:   It’s a good thing, because I happen to like melodies, and key signatures, and nice features like that.  The pendulum swings back and forth.

BD:   Were we right to go through all of the atonal pieces?

LLS:   Hard to say!  Maybe so, because it did at least clean that style out.  The people couldn’t hear that stuff.  Musicians couldn’t hear a lot of the twelve-tone stuff, especially when you serialize not only the pitches, but also the rhythms.  We spent so much time just trying to figure out how it went.  I was lucky.  Certain people have perfect pitch.  There were rehearsals where I couldn’t have heard a voice line because it was so complicated, but a perfect-pitcher can single out what’s going on, and keep some kind of law and order.  But there were many pieces we did with orchestra, where the players frankly hated it.  They couldn’t even get close to what was on the page, and nobody cared, not even the audience.  One performance, and boom, it’s gone.

BD:   You did a number of these works?

LLS:   Oh, gosh, all the time.  In fact, I got my start in New York as a freelance pianist playing on those contemporary music series back in the 1960s and

BD:   Without mentioning any specific pieces, are there a few of that style which deserve to stay in the repertoire?

LLS:   Most definitely.  Go back to the so-called classical tone of Berg, Webern, and Schoenberg.  We know that music’s going to be kept.  Then there were some spin-off pieces, and there were a lot of wonderful American composers, including George Rochberg, Ezra Laderman [CD of music of Laderman shown at right], and many others who were twelve-toners.  But in 1976, the watershed year of our big celebration, many organizations thought of these composers to write pieces to celebrate our country.  Are they going to have a twelve-tone Star-Spangled Banner?  No!  They had to do something, and so a lot of them got more tonal for that.  Lo and behold, they realized, “Hey, people like this!  I might get another performance!”  I was talking to Ezra, and he said that changed his whole thinking, and that he went back to tonality gladly.  He wrote a piece called The Citadel, and then another piece called Sanctuary, which are tonal, and George Rochberg, who was a severe twelve-toner, wrote his Sixth Symphony that we did last year with the New Jersey Symphony, which was an interesting thing.  It was like Mahler, big and sprawling, and there were marches.  There was a parallel because Mahler used march tunes from Germany, but Rochberg used American marches.  It worked, and was also very romantic.  I thought it was something, and it was tonal, so these fellows now get lots of performances.  Maybe that proves something.

BD:   Is this where music is going today?

LLS:   I think so.  Now we can talk about the minimalists freely, because there was something in The New York Times about the fact that minimalism is now dead; it’s passé.  When you spend twenty-five minutes in a piece celebrating a D major chord, you have to count 378 bars, and so the conductor is relegated to being a counter.  That’s a real drag, although I like Philip Glass very much.  Now, John Adams has gone a step further, and used the minimalist idea but in a little larger context.  That’s very beautiful.  John’s a wonderful composer, so there is something to minimalism... if you like that.

BD:   It seems like we have so many different styles these days.

LLS:   In a panel discussion, Gunther Schuller was saying it’s a very hard time to compose now because there are no rules.  You can do something like Terry Riley.  His piece called In C is a bunch of C major chords.  Of course, that’s old stuff now.  That piece is twenty-five years old.  But all these things are available in forms of Earle Brown and George Perle.  Some are very complicated pieces.  Michael Torke is another one, and there’s still a lot of experimenting around in this direction.  Then you have somebody like Alfred Schnittke, the Russian, who’s totally different, yet it really is coming from Prokofiev and Shostakovich.  It’s Russian, but with a slightly different edge to it, and mostly tonal.  There are also some European minimalists such as Arvo Pärt.  It’s big stuff.

BD:   Let me hit you with the big question.  What’s the purpose of music?

LLS:   That
s a darn good question, and I wish I could answer it.  In fact, when I was back in my 20s, I was starving to death in New York.  I wondered is music relevant?  We could suddenly have no more music tomorrow, and life would go on.  I would still take the subway, and do something else.  There’s always Bar Mitzvahs and things to play for, and ballet classes, but concerts?  No more concerts?  Life would go on.  I kept thinking that it’s really irrelevant, but I can’t say that anymore.  There are just too many people out there who want musicincluding myself, of course!  But I have been wondering for a long time what is the function of music?  Now there are many books written about it.  First of all, it is the most immediate thing that speaks to a person’s emotions.  You can test that yourself.  If you’re in a foreign country and you hear the Star-Spangled Banner, you burst out crying.  There’s something that hits you right away.  Its immediate.

BD:   Is this innate, or is it bred into you?

LLS:   Oh, it’s innate, I’m sure.  It’s got to be.  It’s a direct linkage of some kind of wonderful emotional thing.  Music is ineffable.  You can’t even talk about it, and maybe that’s a good thing.  You can’t talk about music.  You can describe it, but you can’t talk about it.

BD:   It takes off where words become inadequate.

LLS:   That’s right.


BD:   How do you combine your career these days between the teaching and the conducting?

LLS:   It’s pretty easy because Yale is very good.  I shouldn’t say this on the air, but they let me off to guest conduct whenever I want to.  I try to play it square with them.

BD:   You don’t overload yourself with conducting engagements?

LLS:   No.  I try to be there for the Yale Philharmonia, which is the graduate orchestra.  It’s like one of the orchestras at Juilliard or Curtis, and I’m in charge of three apprentices.  All these people already have jobs.  That’s the main idea.  These are people who are just ready for the real world to go out and conduct.

BD:   What advice do you have for the young conductor coming along today?

LLS:   Just don’t make the same mistake twice.  There’s only one way to learn, and that’s to be up there and to take your lumps.  Become temperate [showing self-restraint] in the crucible, as Arthur Miller would say.  That’s really what it is, because there are certain things that cannot be taught, and those are more psychological things.  I can tell you some horror stories about orchestras that made cornflakes out of me.  I’m not going to do it now, nor will I mention the orchestra, and there’s still a little fear that resides in this old sixty-year-old body of mine.  When I get in front of an orchestra, for the first two minutes it’s the most exciting thing in the world.  It is a fresh orchestra, and you don’t know them, and you don’t know what’s going to happen.  Is it going to be anarchy?  Are they going to turn on you?  After two or three minutes you’ll know, and they’ll know, and then it’s fine.
BD:   I assume that the orchestra either will play for you if you they like you, or not play for you if they don’t?

LLS:   Yes, and you can tell right away what’s going to happen.

BD:   You’ve been music director in a couple of different places.  Is it part of your job to make sure that this orchestra not only responds to you, but also responds to the guest conductors that come along?

LLS:   I think so, and that is really caused by your own personality.  I’m not a mean guy.  I should be an autocratic dictator, but no, I like people to like me.  I’m in the wrong field, you see!

BD:   I thought we left that kind of behavior behind with Toscanini and Fritz Reiner.

LLS:   Yes, the real good guys!  For a while when I was younger, I was trying to do things two ways.  On the podium, I was really trying to be very strict, and be Toscaniniesque, and get mad.  Then, off the podium, I was just trying to be me, the good guy.
BD:   Wouldn
t that make you schizophrenic?

LLS:   Yes!  In Phoenix, a long time ago, there was a fellow in the first violin section who was a psychologist, an analyst.  He kept looking at me, and then he and I went out for a coffee after one of the rehearsals.  He said, “Mr. Smith, there’s something that’s very obvious about you, and it’s going to get you in some kind of psychological trouble.  On the podium you are one person, and off the podium you’re another.  Now, you’ll have to make up your mind because people see right through that!” Then he continued, “There are many conductors who are successful because they are equally unpleasant both on and off the podium.  If you want to be that, great, but you should be the same person either way.”  I thought this gentleman’s right, and so I changed my style somewhat.  Now I’m rather gentle on the podium, though I get insistent because I want everything played well.

BD:   You get your ideas across?

LLS:   I hope so, but I cannot get angry.  First of all, it’s not in my nature.  I’m a Buddhist.  I’ve been a Buddhist for twenty years... not that I space out and don’t do anything, but there’s a certain viewpoint.

BD:   Is your success partly a tribute to the high level of musicians, and professionalism of the players in front of you?

LLS:   Oh, sure!  You can go any place in the world, like Japan.  It’s fun to conduct over there because these people are so polite.  In the string sections, they’re in the same part of the bow exactly because that’s part of their unity.  They play too together sometimes.  Or, if you go to Korea you see the opposite.  You can’t get them to play together because they are wonderfully individualistic people.  You have to know where you are, but when you go to an orchestra in Czechoslovakia, or Russia, they’re exactly the same.  They all wear the same kind of grubby clothes.  It used to be that they would dress-up in Chicago.  In the old pictures when Solti was first here, the guys were still wearing suits and ties.  Those were the good old days...

BD:   Now it is much more relaxed.

LLS:   Yes, it’s very relaxed, and that’s fine, as long as the work gets done.

BD:   Speaking of work, is all your work done at rehearsal, or do you leave some spark for the night of performance?

LLS:   I wish I knew.  Probably I get most of the work done in rehearsal.  I’m not one that believes in doing a different tempo entirely just to keep them on their toes.  That can be taken to great extremes, and cause a lot of premature stress in a lot of people.  It doesn’t need to be, and it is not in my way of working.

BD:   When you’re preparing a score in your home, or on the plane...

LLS:   ...or in hotel rooms...

BD: you then bring that idea set in concrete, or do you let it breathe a little bit in rehearsals?

LLS:   Oh, it’ll have to change.  It does change in rehearsals.  Certainly, things frankly don’t work.  Many is the time that I’ll get up in front of the orchestra, and try something, and say, “Ah, forget that.  That’s not going to work.  Let’s try some other way.”  Then we’ll do it, and I’ll say, “Is that clear?”

BD:   They don’t think that this guy doesn’t know what he’s doing?

LLS:   I don’t think so...  or maybe they do.  You’ll have to ask them!  I don’t know.  I’ll change, but usually it’s for some practical reason.  Maybe it’s not coming across the way I want it, or it just doesn’t work.

BD:   Does that stem from your early work as an accompanist for singers?

LLS:   Could be.  In fact, I feel most comfortable playing accompaniments with orchestra for pianists or other soloists because that’s what I did for so long.  That’s why I also feel very comfortable with new music, because I was in all those series back in the 1960s in New York with Charles Wuorinen, and Harvey Sollberger, and all these great series playing new music three or four times a week.  It came to haunt me when I got the Louisville Orchestra, because that’s what they do extremely well, and builds its reputation.

BD:   It that why you wanted to go to Louisville, because you knew there was such a rich history of new music?

LLS:   It could have been the reason why they became rather interested in me, and asked me to be Music Director because of that history.

BD:   You followed Jorge Mester?

LLS:   Yes.  First was Robert Whitney (1937-67), then Jorge (1967-79),
two years of Akira Endo (1980-82), and then myself (1983-94).  They haven’t had that many music directors, and I just loved it there.

BD:   Who’s there now?

LLS:   Max Bragado-Darman, a Spanish gentleman, and a very good conductor (1995-97).  [After that came Uriel Segal (1998-2005), Mester again (2006-2013, then Emeritus through 2015), and Teddy Abrams (2014- )].  The new music thing in Louisville has been very expensive, because we were the only orchestra that actually produced our own recordings.  We sent them out in the First Edition Series.

BD:   That’s a huge legacy.  [For more about the history and legacy of the Louisville First Edition series, click HERE.]

LLS:   Oh, it’s wonderful!  Rob Whitney had a committee who happened to have a wonderful ability to choose up-and-coming young composers, like up-and-coming young Elliott Carter, and Bill Schuman, and Morton Gould.  [Recording of music by Gould is shown below-right]  He just picked the right ones.  Hindemith put a piece in, and of course I just love to play these pieces.  [Recording of music by Hindemith is shown below-left]  Whenever I go places, I can say, “That was written for my orchestra!”  Things like the Hindemith Sinfonietta, or the Copland Variations, which are taken from the Piano Variations.
  Also, the Carter Variations were written for Louisville, and that’s now a seminal piece in our repertory.  I think it’s great.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   We’re talking a little bit about recordings.  Do you conduct the same for the microphone as you do when there’s an audience behind you?

LLS:   No. First of all, the whole set-up is so different with the miking.  I’ve used Andy Kazdin as my producer and engineer, and he has specific ways he wants it done where everybody is really spread out for clarity.  So the orchestra has more of a difficulty hearing each other as they’re really spread out, and everything is then done with the dials.
BD:   I would think keeping it all together would be difficult because your down-beat is going to be further away.

LLS:   Exactly!  The main deal is just to be clear, and so it isn’t really a performance like you would think.  I’ve always felt a little strange that way, but then I hear what Andy’s done, and it’s as much his performance as it is mine.  First of all, he has great ears.  He has ears that are better than most conductors, and he can hear all these things.  We just recorded big hunks of the piece, and he kept track.  In doing half the piece, or half a movement, maybe we’d do it three times, and we would know when each particular passage is covered.  We wouldn’t stop for one note, because if we had three run-throughs, one of those would be okay.  Then he’d splice, and do this, that and the other.

BD:   Does that then become a fraud?

LLS:   In a way.  It’s not a performance.  Now there’s this wonderful idea of recording live performances, and then splicing a few things that didn’t quite work... or leaving them in!  That is really wonderful.  I know they’re doing that a lot now.  First of all, it’s cheaper, and you really get more of a feeling of performance.  Frankly, I want to hear some wrong notes!

BD:   Records got too perfect?

LLS:   Oh, yes.  That’s not the way it goes.

BD:   There’s technical perfection, but is there such a thing as musical perfection?

LLS:   No!  I hope not.  As close as it’s gotten are the people who have written the pieces
Mozart, Schubert, these people.  I come from a legacy of Artur Schnabel through Leonard Shure.  Schnabel said he was only going to play music that was greater than anybody ever could have heard it played.  As to the music itself, you could never play it as great as it was.  That’s really wonderful.  It gives you some kind of leeway that you can’t get that far.  There’s too many things to be found in it.

BD:   But you still strive for that perfection?

LLS:   You strive for it, absolutely, to do as best as you can.  You’ll never get there, but it has to be the greatest composers who will provide this, and so that’s why Schnabel’s repertory at the end, was very small.   Likewise, Leonard Shure’s is the big pieces.

BD:   Obviously, in the last fifty or seventy-five years, the technical playing of musicians has gotten better.

LLS:   Oh, no doubt.

BD:   Has the musicianship also gotten better?

LLS:   There are different focuses to it.  Again, I think this came from Schnabel and Rudolf Serkin, that for a long time there was this extreme literalism that went on in the German School.  Every hairpin and every fork had to be observed.  I remember working on a sonata with Shure, the Op. 10, No. 1 in C Minor, Pathétique of Beethoven.  It was very painful.  It took me six months to get through that darn piece!  I will never play that piece in public again.  I just can’t do it.  The same holds for the Sonata in A Minor, D.845 (Op. 42) of Schubert.  That was the first piece I learned with Leonard.  I wasn’t a hot-shot kid.  I was straight from the turnip truck in Portland, Oregon, and still picking straw off myself.  I’d gone to Marlboro, and Serkin asked, “What are you going to do in the Fall?”  I said, “I’m going to New York.”  He asked, “With whom are you going to study?”  I said, “I don’t know!”  He said, “You must study with Leonard Shure.  He’s a master.”  So, I called up Shure on the phone.  I had $7 dollars in my pocket, and in those days, back in the 1960s, that was quite a bit of money.  Leonard took me, and he said, “Learn a Schubert sonata for next time.”  So I blithely went to the library, stole Op. 42
I couldn’t afford a library cardand learned the whole piece.  I thought, I’ll learn the whole darn sonata and blow this man away.  I practiced it, and got through about one-third of the first movement.  This deep bass voice said, “It’s good to be courageous and full of energy to be this industrious, but you don’t play the first three bars correctly.  Let’s go back to the beginning!”  [Pauses a moment]  For the first four weeks, we worked on the first six bars!  It was horrible and painful, but that’s the way Leonard worked.

BD:   Was it worth it in the end?

LLS:   In the end it was fine, but at the end of four years with this man I was tied up in knots.  I had to get out of that.  But Leonard and Rudy Serkin both shaped my whole musical thinking, but I remember I got so frustrated.  In New York you can act sort of weird and nobody really cares.  It was an apartment house on Riverside Drive, sixth floor.  Then you go down after the lesson, and it was especially painful.  I was on the verge of tears, and I thought I was going to lose it.  I got in the elevator, which was packed with New York-type people, and I just burst out crying.  Nobody said, “Kid, are you okay?”  No.  We all got out of the elevator.  I’m just crying like a baby, and everyone just leaves you.  That’s what is nice about New York
nobody asks!  [Both laugh]  That was very painful.

BD:   [Muses on the old saw]  If you want to be alone, go to a big city!

LLS:   That’s right, yes.  But I have wonderful memories of Leonard, who just died last February.  Many pianists
Gil Kalish, Jerry Rose, Ursula Oppensall went through this process with Leonard.

BD:   Now, has that become part of your teaching and conducting?

LLS:   No!  I was the piano faculty of Boston University when I was younger, and I tried to teach the same way, with two pianos side-by-side.  That way you would demonstrate, and the student would do it.  Leonard would make you play exactly the way he was playing.  He said, “It’s always going to be different, because we have different metabolisms,” but you found yourself having to do exactly as he did.  He could get quite brutal.  Then there would be masterclasses where twenty-five people were watching you get skewered.  [Both laugh]  You’d wish you were on Mars at that time.  That was painful.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you’re playing or conducting a piece, how much is the composer, and how much is Lawrence Leighton Smith?

LLS:   Oh, gosh!  These are great questions, Bruce!  In orchestral things, it’s a different ball game because you have to go with what’s written... unless you want to fix all the dynamics like Stokowski did.  Many people used to do that, but it’s not so much that way anymore.  It’s become rather literal.  There’s still plenty of room for tempo fluctuations, and now we have such a huge library of what we can listen to
like Furtwängler, who was great, and then the Toscanini.  They felt it was a completely different kind of thing, and now it swings back a little bit.  Now tempos are slower than they used to be.  It’s like going to a wonderful clothing store... you can just pick things up off the rack, and say, “That’s rather nice,” but I try to form my own concept.  Then, if I haven’t done the piece before, I might listen to a couple of recordings.  It’s foolish not to. You might as well get somebody else’s point of view, too.
BD:   Is this what makes a piece of music great
that is can withstand all these interpretations?

LLS:   Isn’t it amazing?  The Beethoven Fifth is still going great, even though it can be butchered almost to the point of extinction.

BD:   It seems to have been pulled in every direction.

LLS:   Oh, every direction, and it’s still works, and people want to hear it.  Likewise, the piano repertory.

BD:   When you do a brand new piece, you’re not able to hear a record of something that hasn’t been created yet.

LLS:   Yes, then that’s really fun.  Then you really have to do your homework.  I do a lot of work at the piano as far as studying a piece.  I’m playing it, and trying to get the impulse in my body.

BD:   Does it bother you to know that yours will be the recording that others will listen to and follow?

LLS:   It feels pretty good, especially when the composer says, “Hey, I didn’t think of that.  That works!”  Most composers are pretty lenient about what they’ll allow.  Not all, but that’s what makes it fun.  This concerto by Daniel Asia is part of a consortium.  There were seven different orchestras that were in on it.

BD:   They all will get it at some point the next couple of years or so?

LLS:   Yes.  This is the fifth orchestra that has done the piece, so it has been around.  André-Michel Schub plays it beautifully.  I got a tape of one of the earlier performances, and he does it quite a bit differently now than he did earlier.  That makes it fun.

BD:   What advice do you have for young composers coming along?

LLS:   Write music that people like!  [Both laugh]  Get performances!  Feed your family.  All this kind of thing, and it’s easier these days.  Going back to what Gunther said, “There are just too many styles.  I don’t know how to compose anymore.”  Gunther was a twelve-toner, and this was a huge panel discussion in Louisville.  He was saying, “It’s impossible to compose anymore because there are no rules.”  Wuorinen jumped in and said, “Now it’s great because there aren’t any rules!”  Charles is one of the most straight twelve-tone people there are, composing by the book, and they really got into it.  I thought, “This is what music’s all about!”

BD:   It scares me a little bit because Gunther is one of the most forward-looking people, and it sounds like he’s getting left by the wayside.

LLS:   No, I don’t think so.  His music has changed quite a bit.  [Knowing that this would be on the radio, so he leaned in toward the microphone]  Gunther, are you listening?!?!  [Both laugh]  But it has gotten a little more tonally considered, you might say.  It’s still got twelve-tone elements, and I have the greatest respect for Gunther.

BD:   He still goes back and forth between the twelve-tone and the jazzy stuff.

LLS:   Yes, very much so.  His Third Stream ideas were so wonderful, and he hears it all so well.  He’s a good conductor on his own, and as a musician, he is astounding.  So is Charles Wuorinen.  These are big people, but to hear them get into a heated discussion...

BD:   Are there some of these composers who are living, or perhaps recently deceased, who are going to take their place in the pantheon?

LLS:   Gosh, we won’t know until a hundred years from now, when we’re sitting on a cloud, looking down to hear whose music is still being played.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Ohhh, gaze into your crystal ball!

LLS:   I wouldn’t take a chance.  [Pauses]  Well, I’ll try to.  It seems to me that we can look back at certain pieces of the twentieth century now, to see the music that is considered as ‘classic’, such as the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra.  Bartok’s output was not huge, but it was wonderful.  Every piece was crafted.  It seems like he has a chance at making it, as does Stravinsky.  Yet, when you go back to Beethoven’s time, there were Spohr and Hummel.  In their time, they were considered better composers.  Spohr maybe was more imaginative with his
music of the spheres than Beethoven.

BD:   But now they’re getting a revival, at least on the recordings.

LLS:   Yes, but Rudy Serkin once said, “If Schubert hadn’t lived, Spohr would certainly be among the great ones.”  Well, Schubert did live, so it’s really hard to say who’s going to last.  There is Hindemith, whom I adore.  Even before I went to Yale, I adored Hindemith.  As a kid, I composed in the style of Hindemith because that was the thing to do.  Then Hindemith passed on in 1964, and except for Mathis der Maler, and a few others pieces, his music got eclipsed.

BD:   Was he a composer for his time?

LLS:   Hard to say how that fits.  At the beginning, he was l’enfant terrible in Germany, and then he mellowed out when he got here.  He wrote the Symphonic Metamorphosis using jazz elements, and also some very accessible pieces.  His music is starting to be played again.  My argument is that just the sheer craft of it is going to bring him back.  Martinů is another wonderful composer.  I adore Martinů.

BD:   He lost one of his great champions when Rudolf Firkušný died a couple of years ago.

LLS:   Yes, that’s true.  But I’ve got a feeling...  I’ll put my money on Martinů and Hindemith.  They’ll start to come back someday when we’re long gone.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What advice do you have for someone who wants to be an orchestral player?
LLS:   [Musing a moment]  An orchestra player???

BD:   Or does anybody start out being an orchestral player?  Does everybody want to be Heifetz or Perlman?

LLS:   There you are in the string department.  The graduate school at Yale is a conservatory, and all these hot-shots play Wieniawski.  Then we have an orchestra session, and they know nothing about style
even these wonderful Asian players who practice twenty-five hours a day.  It’s frightening, but they don’t know anything about orchestral playing.  What we’re supposed to do is teach them, and they will find out that they might have to play in orchestras... Heaven forbid, but that’s what’s going to happen.  [Both laugh]  No, I don’t know what kind of advice to give them.  Wind players are much more aware earlier that orchestras are going to be their place.  I have a son who’s a bassoonist.

BD:   [With a big smile]  I’m an old bassoon player as well.

LLS:   [Grins]  Hey, I knew there was something special about you!  [Much laughter]  It’s a cult!  John, my son, came to it slowly.  I didn’t think he was going to be a musician, and he never talked to me.  He didn’t start out as a prodigy, but he picked up this instrument.  He had an ability to pick up any instrument in high school and play it naturally.  I thought,
“My gosh, this kid is something.  He has great ears, and he got himself a synthesizer and did some arranging.  He did everything with no help from me, because I was saying, “Hey, John, you’re never going to make a living from this.”  He went off and got a big scholarship to Indiana University graduate school in bassoon, and then he realized that for every bassoonist opening, there are 500 bassoonists, all of whom are terrific, and play like gang-busters, especially in the Mid-West where we were.  So he decided he wouldn’t continue it.

BD:   I hope he’s not selling insurance...

LLS:   No, he’s in the military, which is okay.  He’s arranging for the Marine Band, so he’s doing something that is related to his interest.

BD:   There are a lot of good players in the service bands.

LLS:   Oh, gosh yes, monster players.  But for the ones who are waiting for the auditions, they have to spend five hundred bucks to go some place to audition, and it’s a cattle-call of three hundred people.  They spend all their money, and they’re in debt.  They go to Yale, and spend $30,000 a year, and they have to pay that off.  It’s not a pleasant prospect.

BD:   [Wanting to end on a positive note]  One last question.  Is conducting fun?

LLS:   It is a blast, and especially these days because I
m in my second childhood.  [Laughs]  I have to be a little bit careful.  There are pressures, and always will be, but the world is not going to stop spinning on its axis if I conduct or not.  That’s the way I feel.

BD:   You’ve paid your dues?

LLS:   I
ve paid my dues, and it’s been a wonderful life.  It still is, and its getting better all the time.  But I also have other interests, such as tennis, chess, and reading.  Also the piano!  That’s where my soul is.  I still go back to play the piano, and conducting is the gravy.

BD:   Will you go back to accompanying some of the great singers?

LLS:   That, and playing recitals.  People can’t stop me from playing recitals.  Nobody comes, and I don’t charge any money, but it’s okay.  If they want to hear it, fine.  If they don’t, then heck with it.  It doesn’t make any difference.  I’m doing what I really want to do.  I don’t conduct as many concerts as I used to, so I can pick and choose.  Conducting, as an event, is a little more important now because I go out for maybe five to seven different guest conducting assignments per season, and they’re all spaced out nicely.  So that’s a big deal, but, at the same time, there are no great pressures, except to try to keep your brains together and not make any mistakes.  So, there’s not that kind of pressure, and it’s fun.

BD:   Has your Buddhist philosophy invaded the music?

LLS:   Probably.  That plus just trying to get a spiritual core to what’s going on.

BD:   Do you gravitate to more spiritual pieces?

LLS:   Oh yes.  Bruckner now is a big deal on my life.  I think Bruckner is one of the last people whom we come to as a composer, at least it has been for me, and now I can’t get enough Bruckner.  I never used to have the patience to sit through his works.  Mahler was the guy, because it was all ironic.  Mahler still is wonderful, but Bruckner is something very special.

BD:   [Slyly, knowing that Bruckner was an organist]  But he didn’t orchestrate.  He registered!

LLS:   You might say that!  [Laughs]  Yes, I think so.  He used organ sonorities, and Wagner Tubas.

BD:   Thank you for continuing your conducting career, and for letting me chat with you today.

LLS:   Heck, I’m having a blast! 
Thank you.  This was fun.  You’re so easy to work with.



© 1996 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on April 12, 1996.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB two months later; and on WNUR in 2011, and 2019; and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2011.  This transcription was made in 2022, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.