Like many of his breed, conductor Lawrence Leighton Smith is a man on the move.
Last weekend, for instance, he was in New York leading the Louisville Orchestra (of which he has been music director since 1983) in concert at Carnegie Hall. Then he flew to Los Angeles to conduct two days' worth of auditions for the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara (where he succeeded Theo Alcantara as director). Wednesday found him in Des Moines, Iowa, for concerts with that orchestra, and this week he returns to Utah for three concerts with the Utah Symphony, Thursday at Weber State College and Friday and Saturday at Symphony Hall.I caught up with him via telephone in Des Moines, where he was to accompany Grant Johannesen in the Saint-Saens Fourth Piano Concerto and lead the Des Moines Symphony in one of the pieces he will be doing here in Utah, the Symphony No. 4 of Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu. Were that not enough, his Carnegie Hall program included the Martinu Fifth.
"I suppose the next question is am I a Martinu specialist," he quips good-naturedly before answering the question himself. "By no means. But there's something in this man's music which draws me to it." Smith admits he doesn't know the earlier Martinu symphonies all that well, but says he believes very much in the Fourth and Fifth - the second of which, he reminds me, was first recorded by the Louisville Orchestra, in 1966 - and is also getting into the Sixth, "which is much darker."
Given its unique commissioning and recording program, it isn't unusual for a contemporary orchestral work to have been first recorded by the Louisville Orchestra. Included in that catalog are William Schuman's "Judith," the Orchestral Variations of both Aaron Copland and Elliott Carter, Rodrigo's "Cuatro Madrigales Amatorios" and Peter Mennin's Symphony No. 6.
Not coincidentally some Mennin likewise figures on this week's Utah Symphony programs - the Concertato for Orchestra (subtitled "Moby Dick") - together with the Faure Ballade and Mozart's A major Piano Concerto, K. 488, both with pianist Jean-Bernard Pommier.
Smith says he doesn't really know the reason for the Concertato's subtitle. (Reportedly the composer was contemplating an opera on "Moby Dick" at the time.) "Unfortunately I never asked Peter about that when he was alive. But I think it must communicate something of what it feels like to hunt whales - the constant motion, the canons in the string writing and the trademark Mennin allegros. Although actually the Sixth Symphony has the same kind of motor rhythms."
Of his own peripatetic existence, Smith says simply, "I like to travel." In that connection one recalls his history-making visit to the Soviet Union in 1986, where under the auspices of Sheffield Lab he became the first American-born conductor ever to record with a Russian orchestra, the Moscow Philharmonic. But in fact his career ran into some unexpected turbulence a few years ago, around the time he made his conducting debut with the Utah Symphony in 1980.
At that time he was about to embark on his eighth season as music director of the Oregon Symphony, based in Portland, his own home prior to heading east to continue his piano studies at the Mannes College of Music. (While in New York he also took top honors in the Dimitri Mitropoulos International Conducting Competition, in 1964.) Initially it must have seemed the ideal appointment: Oregon's most distinguished young conductor takes over the state's leading orchestra. But after a while, he says, the hometown-boy image wore thin.
"It was a period of a lot of growth for me, and a lot of concern and heartache too," Smith reflects. "I had been through a session of having the critics on my back and probably felt a little paranoia. It might have mattered less in another place, but facing the orchestra every day with that over my head gave me the feeling I had better leave, of my own volition, before it really was too late."
Around the same time he remarried, joined his wife in converting to Buddhism, accepted dual appointments in San Antonio and Louisville and even changed his name professionally - from Lawrence Smith to Lawrence Leighton Smith.
"Mainly I did it to offset the name `Smith,' " he says of the latter, adding that he's not sure it's "made one whiff of difference." Of his eventual abandonment of San Antonio for Louisville, he says "it got to where I was spending more time in the air than on the ground and I didn't think I was doing either city much service, so with a little prodding from each board I made a choice."
That was in 1985, and since then, Smith says, he has had little reason to regret that choice. For one thing, as his program this week bears out, he shares Louisville's commitment to new music - "That's one of the reasons I sought the post," he insists. "Also it's an arts-enriched city with good support for the orchestra and an understanding of what it has to offer."
Currently the Louisville Orchestra plays 12 subscription concerts a season, 10 of which next year will include at least one contemporary American piece. In addition to which the orchestra recently launched its own new-music festival - SoundCelebration - which brought in players from all over the world (including the Muir Quartet); this fall it will present a mini-fest celebrating the music of William Bolcom; and it is scheduled to present a week and a half of contemporary music, also with Bolcom, at Indiana State University in Terre Haute.
"There are some great things out there," Smith says of the new-music scene these days. "It's an interesting period, too, in that as Gunther Schuller was saying recently it's possible to write in any style you wish. I think 12-tone is on the wane; we're back to what we call neo-romanticism, and I enjoy that."
He also enjoys the added peace he says Buddhism has brought him. "And not just the humanitarian aspect, but also the musical. For instance it's taken me away from a preoccupation with technical things and, I hope, broadened my emotional scope."
It's also given him a new perspective when the various roads he travels get a little rough even today. "Suffer what there is to suffer," he says, intoning a venerable Buddhist phrase, "and enjoy what there is to enjoy."
Starting time for this week's concerts is 8 p.m., with tickets available at the Dee Events Center or, for the Friday and Saturday concerts, Symphony Hall. For information call 533-6407.