Barry Smith’s extraordinary musical journey

Barry Smith’s extraordinary musical journey

Barry Smith will present Notes from a Musical Journey at the Baxter Concert Hall on Monday 27 January 2014. This year, Barry is also about to celebrate 50 years of music making, as well as his 75th birthday. As an early congratulations from us, updates an interview we conducted with him in April 2010.

Reading your CV is rather daunting. You are an organist, harpsichordist, pianist, choir trainer, teacher, lecturer, musicologist, author, choral and orchestral conductor, music critic, and composer. Did you ever have a preference for any of the hats you donned? Is there any of these fields that you wish you had had more time to pursue?

BS : I’ve been so very lucky to have had the opportunity to be involved in so many branches of music-making – mainly because, as you say, I wore so many musical hats all of which I enjoyed and still enjoy wearing – the variety of the music has been mind-boggling. Being organist at St George’s Cathedral meant that I was often involved in large scale music-making, conducting both choirs and orchestras. If I had had the time and opportunity I would have loved to have the opportunity to do more orchestral conducting, but there is an amusing but true comment –‘the hardest part about orchestral conducting is getting people to let you’! But I have been extremely lucky in the wonderful and varied opportunities that I have had in my life as a musician.

You are obviously passionate about music, have had a rewarding career and received a lot of recognition for your work. Did you ever have a preference for any of the hats you donned? Organist? Critic? Lecturer? Choir trainer?

BS : I think my most satisfying moments were working with the choirs at the Cathedral – performing some of the great church music in the context of the service itself. My basic training was as a church musician and I think this is probably what I have always done best and will be the last thing I do in my musical life.

You have 7 Requiems in your repertoire (Mozart, Cherubini, Brahms, Faure, Verdi, Britten, and Duruflé) from very different periods. Which one did you find the most challenging and why? Why do you think liturgical music is so well-loved?

BS : The Britten ‘War Requiem’ without doubt – it is a work conceived on an immense scale – three vocal soloists, a full symphony orchestra and organ, chamber orchestra, large choir, chamber choir and an offstage boys’ choir. It is an incredibly moving piece where the war poetry of Wilfred Owen is interspersed with the setting of the Latin Requiem Mass. I think that in this very material day and age people look for something to lift them out of the greyness and materialism of daily life – and even if they are not ‘religious’ there is something about ‘church music’ which has an indefinable quality and which still has the power to move people and to transform their lives.

You’ve conducted the complete St Matthew Passion (Bach) and you have also tackled other works of equal length and performed them in their entirety. In your experiences, are audiences today still patient enough to sit through long works?

BS : People still seem prepared to attend and sit through long choral/religious works such as the Bach ‘St Matthew Passion’ (three and a quarter hours) or a Handel oratorio (two and a half hours) just as they are prepared to sit through long operas such as the Wagner ‘Ring’ cycle – It demands an immense amount of effort and concentration from the audience and one owes it to the listeners to make sure that one has first class players and singers giving of their best all the time.

What were the specific challenges of the Bach’s St Matthew Passion?

BS : One has to find excellent singers and orchestral players who can cope with the often super-human demands that Bach makes on all of them. It’s a monumental work, two choirs (plus a children’s choir), two orchestras, and six solo singers. Also there are great physical, mental and emotional demands made on the conductor – but the greatest joy to me has been that after 24 performances of the work over 34 years, I think I am beginning at last to understand what the work is all about!

Your repertoire includes compositions by contemporary South African composers (Van Dijk, Klatzow, Rosenschoon, etc.). Do you think enough is done to nurture local composers’ talents?

BS : I fear the answer must sadly and obviously be ‘No’. In my time I have tried to perform works by contemporary composers, South African ones in particular. In fact, I have commissioned a number of works for the St George’s Singers and also for myself. But the awful truth is that contemporary music is not box-office material. Also the cost of hiring and paying of royalties for modern works is often beyond the financial means of smaller music organisations.

In 2008 you started the St. Andrew’s Concert Series to provide a platform for young musical talent. How successful has this series been?

BS : The series has really taken off and I’m thrilled that we have been able to give so many opportunities to young musicians who would otherwise have struggled to find a platform. The audiences are growing and we now have a waiting list of performers waiting to be placed in the series. We have been very lucky to have had generous sponsors who have regularly supported us, notably the Rupert Music Foundation.

Interpretation is a very personal thing. When studying a new work, how do you envisage the interpretation? Do you have visual images or perhaps colours that come to mind in certain passages? Or are your interpretations purely abstract? You need to communicate your interpretation to whoever you are working with (choir/orchestra). How do you this linguistically?

BS : If one could put music into words then there wouldn’t be any need for music, would there? As a conductor I am very aware that one takes one’s performers (and also the audience) on a journey of sorts – so one must know what the composer is trying to say and where the music – the melody, the harmony, the form is going – personally I see great vistas and images when I conduct and hope that I can take everyone with me as we explore the music together.

Often audiences want to be spoilt with what they know and who they know. How do you convince people to attend a concert by unknown musicians?

BS : This is always a big problem as people like what they know and often feel nervous when they listen to music that they don’t understand the first time round. I think this actually applies to all the arts. I try to introduce less well known pieces into programmes which have some favourites as well – to sweeten the pill, one might say.

Do you think young musicians still get sufficient technical training?

BS : The possibilities of excellent training and teaching are all around us, especially in Cape Town – it is over to the young musician to be sufficiently motivated and disciplined and enthusiastic to take advantage of the opportunities that are available. Of course there are. Sadly, many talented young people who don’t have access to these opportunities – it is the kind of sadness which one sees in so many aspects of life in South Africa in the present time.

You have worked with singers extensively (choirs and soloists) – would you consider conducting an opera, if you were asked?

BS : I have only conducted one opera in my career – Gluck’s ‘Orfeo’ which I enjoyed immensely. In fact I am actually a great opera fan and am the Cape Town correspondent for the British magazine ‘Opera’ which is edited by a former student of mine, John Allison, who is also music critic for the London ‘Sunday Telegraph’. Also I grew up in an opera-loving family and some of the first music I heard was from the great, popular operas. So if I were given the opportunity I would be more than happy conducting opera - after all I have conducted so much vocal, choral and orchestral music by two of the greatest opera composers, Handel and Mozart so it’s not such a big jump from the church to the opera pit – anyway, so much of the church’s liturgy is theatrical, isn’t it?

Do you think there is enough recognition for people practicing classical music in South Africa? (anyone from musicians to composers, conductors, etc.)

BS : Another ‘No’, I’m afraid. When millions are spent on sport (dare I mention the word ‘soccer’) how much do you think is spent on the performing arts? ‘Elitist’ is a convenient term to dismiss something the importance of which people don’t fully understand – and music is for everyone. It is one of the few activities where all those listening or taking part are striving for something beautiful, a common good. Would that everyday life could be like that!

During your extensive career you must have experienced many highlights. Any of them that stand out in particular?

BS : Oh dear, I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that question! There are so many of those – and surely every performance is a highlight as one is trying to give one’s very best every moment of every performance – but if you want something specific how about the privilege of giving organ recitals in places like Westminster Abbey or King’s College, Cambridge, or conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in Worcester Cathedral, or meeting Queen Elizabeth and Nelson Mandela after a service in St George’s Cathedral or my ten years when Desmond Tutu was Archbishop of Cape Town? That’s for starters . . .

Which is the best organ you ever played on or one has stuck in your mind for some reason?

BS : I think the two I mentioned – simply because of the magnificence of those particular instruments and the historic buildings in which they are housed as well as the superb acoustics. Also the thought that when one is thundering out a piece in Westminster Abbey one is making the bones of the famous who are buried there rattle in their graves! Handel, Purcell and a host of others.

Looking at the extensive list of your repertoire, publications,compositions, etc. it is hard to imagine that you have time for anything else but music. Do you have any other interests? (something that has nothing to do with music!)

BS : Yes, indeed. I love poetry and have even tried my hand at writing some - and art, especially 19th Century British Art, the Pre-Raphaelites in particular. And I am very interested in politics and am passionate about Cape Town – did you know I am also Chairman of the City Bowl Ratepayers Association? Now surely that’s something that has nothing to do with music!

Please click on the link for more information on Barry Smith’s lecture performance at the Baxter Concert Hall on Monday 27 January 2014 at 20h00.

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