Craig Smith (1947–2007)

Boston loses a beloved musician
By EDITORIAL  |  November 19, 2007

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For more than 30 years, Emmanuel Music has been central to the cultural life of Boston. And no one was more central to Emmanuel Music’s growth and achievement than its founder: conductor and pianist Craig Smith, who died this past week at the age of 60. Smith’s friendships, associations, and collaborations with director Peter Sellars, choreographer Mark Morris, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, composer John Harbison, and pianist Russell Sherman produced defining moments in contemporary culture. Boston Phoenix classical-music editor Lloyd Schwartz pays his — and our — tribute to Craig Smith with these memories.

“Thank you!” Those were the first words I ever heard from Craig Smith. A friend had invited me to a piano recital Smith was giving at Emmanuel Church, where he was music director. It hadn’t gone very well, and she was worried about what to say to him. When we went “backstage” to the Emmanuel vestry, she ran up to him, hugged him, and blurted out, “Craig, how are you?” He enthusiastically replied, “Thank you!”

That was typical of his generosity of spirit, of his assuming the best intentions and putting the best face on any situation. And also of his often slightly distracted air, which made everyone who knew and loved him want to take care of him.

Never one to promote his own career, he was masterful at collaboration. He got extraordinary people excited about working together. What he’ll be most remembered for were the group efforts, beginning back in 1970 when he started to lead Bach cantatas as part of the Sunday liturgy (which is what Bach intended). Seven years later, Emmanuel Music became the first group in America to perform all of Bach’s cantatas. It’s still doing them. Craig encouraged cooperation and, even more important, the idea of performers giving themselves to the music, serving it rather than themselves. He gave such celebrity guests as Seiji Ozawa and Christopher Hogwood a chance to do the same. Boston’s musical life would be considerably thinner without the countless conductors, instrumentalists, and singers who “graduated” from Emmanuel Music. Many of this city’s most inspired musicians are still here because he instilled in them a kind of spiritual calling that doesn’t exist in more-competitive musical centers. “Exploration” and “wrestling” are key words in his mission statement for Emmanuel Music.

He was temperamentally unsuited to a career as a celebrity recitalist (though his playing certainly improved from that first concert I heard), but he became a great accompanist and chamber player, and an extraordinarily sensitive and illuminating conductor. The players in the Emmanuel Orchestra could read one another’s thoughts. Symphony concerts sounded like chamber music. When Peter Sellars attended Emmanuel’s 1979 concert version of Handel’s Orlando — this country’s first complete performance of that opera — he immediately wanted to work with Craig on a full-scale production. The result, two years later, was its now legendary run at the American Repertory Theatre.

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