You Could Only Hope to Live in Ivywild

Submitted by Andy on Thu, 11/02/2006 - 20:00

I tend to spend my Thursdays at the BPL now. Whereas Monday through Wednesday keep me busy into the evenings and Friday is when my faux musicology is often due, Thursdays are free and allow me time to nerd it up hardcore.

It was actually at the much smaller library where I work that this story first crossed my path, and I regret to say that further research has come up with little support. As I was digging in the journal stacks for something else I discover that hey! We subscribe(d) to the Guitar Review, as far as I know this is one of the few guitar periodicals that even vaguely approaches scholarly. I randomly grab an issue and peruse through it. In a tasteful display of coincidence, a composition student asks for the score to Schoenberg's Serenade, brutal twelve-tone craziness for eight musicians, two of which are a guitarist and a mandolin player. Written in 1922, it was perhaps the last guitar part to squeak out before Segovia throughly banished modernism from the guitar. However this meant that no "classical" guitarist really had the tools to play Schoenberg. It wasn't even performed until 1949, and who played this epochal guitar part?

Johnny fucking Smith.
Yeah, like Johnny "Moonlight in goddamn Vermont" Smith.

Even in an interview given five years ago, Smith still points to his (brief) involvement in Serenade's premiere as one of the high points of his career. The premier was part of a celebration of the composer's works for his 75th birthday (proving that a birthday party is always popular) by über-conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos, and the classical guitarist he had dragooned into the part couldn't hack it. With the performance in jeopardy, the violinist for the date, Louis Krasner, canvassed New York City to find a new guitarist. Introduced to our hero by his brother-in-law, he was concerned about needing a translator with a jazz musician.

They met Johnny outside the studio just as he was getting off at 10:00 pm. Felix Galimir dealt with the preliminaries, "Johnny, I want you to meet Louis Krasner."
"Louis Krasner, the great violinist?" asked Johnny Smith.
"Why, uh, yes," and Louis, stepping forward. "Do you know about me?"
"Of course!" said Johnny. "I have your recording of the Schönberg violin concerto and I've come to many of your concerts!"
"I see, and you like the music of Schönberg, Berg, and other contemporary comp..."
"I love their music! I go to performances whenever I can!"
Krasner leaned forward to whisper into Felix Galimir's ear, "I can handle it from here."
However, Smith did do a guitarist's duty.
This was a Friday evening, so I asked "When is the first rehearsal?" When Louis Krasner told me it was Monday morning–being the damn fool that I am–I replied, "I'll give it a shot!" Then I took my guitar to the hotel I was staying, left the music on my bed and went out. Since it was Friday night, I made the usual rounds of all my favorite bars and finally got to bed about 5 o' clock in the morning.
At 6 'o clock in the morning, one hour later, the phone rings and it's Mr. Krasner. Well, my gosh! I'm really bleary-eyed, to say the least! He says, "I'm sorry to have to call you, but the Maestro is very upset and he wants to have a rehearsal right away." I just about had a coronary! "Mr. Krasner, I haven't even opened the music. There's no way..." but he was very firm. [...]
All the musicians were seated and ready to go when I walked in and I said to myself "Oh God!" If it hadn't been the middle of winter, I would have opened the window and jumped! However, I took the guitar out and put the music on the stand. I couldn't even see the darned stuff, much less read it! But I opened it up and we started. [...]
Well, naturally I couldn't read the thing; I could hardly see the notes! But I'd had enough experience working under conductors to know that they give me a cue, I'd better hit something! Well, this rehearsal only lasted about ten minutes. Then Mitropoulos came over, shook my hand and said "I'll be eternally grateful to you for doing this."
This sort of crossover isn't totally unheard of, after all Electric Counterpoint was comissioned for and premiered by Pat Metheny. However, it seems it's becoming less common. Jazz musicians often study classically because it's what you're supposed to do rather than for the love of the game. Perhaps a disdain between the two disciplines is just a probably where I spent undergrad. Championship ensembles like the NBC Orchestra (of which Galimir and Smith were members and was often under Toscanini's stick) that expect to see every style of music possible just don't exist anymore. This leads to instrumentalists that try to obtain more that one set of skills (read: me) ending up master of nuns.

Smith would end up working with Mitropoulos again, for the American premiere of Berg's Wozzeck. This happened just a few short months before Smith abandoned the music industry to retreat to the sleepy Colorado town of Ivywild. He doesn't even play guitar anymore, his perfectionism makes trying to get his chops back irritating. Even if all he had done with "Moonlight In Vermont" he really wouldn't need to.

All of the quoted material comes from Larry Snitzler's article "Johnny Smith Plays Schönberg", Guitar Review n. 57 (Spring 1984).