Craig Smith (1947–2007)

By EDITORIAL  |  November 19, 2007

Sellars’s placing Ariosto’s epic romance at Cape Canaveral made for great box office, but the heart of the production was the musical understanding that Craig imparted to the magnificent cast and orchestra, and to Sellars — helping him become a more musically sophisticated stage director (a debt Sellars repeatedly acknowledges). Craig was also the soul of unforgettable Sellars productions of Handel’s oratorio Saul and the opera Giulio Cesare (which gave Lorraine Hunt Lieberson her first great role), their memorable series of Mozart/da Ponte operas (preserved on DVD), and Mark Morris’s masterpiece L’Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato, the premiere of which he led in Brussels, where from 1988 to 1991 he was principal conductor of the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie. This past season, he programmed at Emmanuel all three of Handel’s Ariosto operas (and led two of them, including Orlando). “No conductor alive today,” I wrote at the time, “leads Handel with more gravity, rhythmic punch, and sense of melodic contour.”

His closest encounter with show biz was the concocted Gershwin musical My One and Only. But the star, Tommy Tune, didn’t like either Sellars’s direction or Craig’s unalterable decision to use Gershwin’s original arrangements. They were fired, but the buyout probably made Craig more money than anything else he did.

His ideas about music were often surprising. He gave an affectionate, scintillating concert performance of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. He loved Ravel’s Boléro. He organized, introduced, wrote the notes for, and played in multi-year cycles of the complete vocal, piano, and chamber music of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Debussy, Ravel, and John Harbison. In 1981, he led violinist Rose Mary Harbison and the Emmanuel Orchestra in the world premiere of Harbison’s Violin Concerto, which they later recorded.

But he suffered from diabetes, and his health was deteriorating. This past summer, his heart stopped during anæsthesia for a kidney transplant. This past month, he organized a performance of Bach’s The Art of the Fugue with 13 pianists; he was too weak to be the 14th. He was scheduled to conduct Bach’s motet Jesu, meine Freude the Sunday before his death, and he led the Saturday rehearsal, but John Harbison conducted the actual performance. It was exquisite and moving. You could hear Craig’s power and tenderness behind it, inside it. No one expected that he would die two days later. It’s unbearable to think there won’t be another performance like it.

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