The Stravinsky Years
Chronology Part 5:
The Gregg Smith Singers were given an entire evening of choral music presentations at the Los Angeles Music Festival, on June 9, 1963. The program included motets and madrigals by a wide range of composers, as well as Aaron Copland’s “In the Beginning” and Benjamin Britten’s “Hymn to St. Cecilia.” The choir was also signed to record for Everest. The first of four recordings, “American Triptych” was produced in 1963.
Other works in the series included “Three Reincarnations” by Samuel Barber, “Carols of Death” by William Schuman and “In the Beginning” by Aaron Copland. These recordings had a strong impact on choral conductors, many of whom had never before heard these works.
In 1964, John McClure, the Director of Columbia Masterworks and chief recording engineer, signed the Gregg Smith Singers to a long-term contract to record all the choral music of Charles Ives (four albums in all).
One reason for John McClure's decision to sign GSS came about due to an influx of new singers into the group. One of the main choirs at the Los Angeles Music Festival was the Roger Wagner Chorale. The group was excellent, but Roger Wagner could be difficult to work with and was often volatile in rehearsals. Musicians who worked under him often considered him something of a tyrant and his musical ego was such that he would yell: “I can write music better than this!” while conducting another composer's music. Even Stravinsky was not excluded!
Some of Roger Wagner's singers decided that they wanted to work with the Gregg Smith Singers. This took a lot of nerve on their part because they subsequently were not hired by Roger Wagner. However, their inclusion expanded the quality and range of GSS.
This was very apparent in the recording that the expanded Gregg Smith Singers made of William Schuman's: “Carols of Death” for Everest Records.
Gregg Smith: “When I played the recording for John McClure, he said to me “Now you've really got a choir. That's a sound we can use.”
The Gregg Smith Singers also did a recording session of Schoenberg’s “Vier Schtucke” Opus 27 and “Drei Satiren” Opus 28 with CBS Masterworks in the summer of 1964, with Robert Craft conducting. Of the “Vier Schtucke,” Gregg Smith has remarked “The fourth song of this piece was a miracle piece.”
Gregg Smith: “I was finally coming into my own with this really difficult choral music. We learned it before Craft began coming to rehearsals. I made GSS sing the rows at the beginning of each rehearsal! It was the real path to learning Schoenberg. And it was a gateway to mastering the later serial Stravinsky.”
In 1965, Gregg Smith moved to the East Coast to teach at Ithaca College in New York State and began working with the Ithaca College Concert Choir. One reason for the move was to be closer to the New York City musical scene, which had more opportunities for classical music than could be found in Los Angeles.
At the same time, a great deal of recording with Stravinsky and Robert Craft began with the West Coast GSS, making Gregg Smith a very busy commuter. The first of the Ives recordings, “General William Booth enters into Heaven” was made in June 1965 and won the Gregg Smith Singers their first Grammy.
Stravinsky's “Four Russian Peasant Songs” were recorded by Columbia Masterworks on August 20, 1965, using the women of the Gregg Smith Singers and members of the Columbia Symphony. Stravinsky conducted.
Also recorded on August 20, 1965 by Columbia Masterworks and using GSS was the Slavonic version of Stravinsky's “Credo.” Stravinsky conducted.
On November 27, 1965, the Gregg Smith Singers recorded Stravinsky's “Cantata.” Soloists included: Adrienne Albert (mezzo-soprano) and Alexander Young (tenor). The recording featured the Columbia Chamber Ensemble. Stravinsky conducted. The recording was made by Columbia Masterworks.
Gregg Smith: “During this recording session, we were privileged to have the wonderful photographer and dear friend Marilyn Shaw present. The result is the amazing, never-before-seen pictures which can now be seen on this website for the first time.”
December 21, 1965—Columbia Masterworks recorded “Les Noces” and “Mavra.” Conducted by Robert Craft, the recording is described as “supervised by the composer.” Soloists for “Les Noces”: include: Mildred Allen (soprano), Adrienne Albert (mezzo- soprano), Jack Litten (tenor) and William Metcalfe (bass); the choir is the Ithaca College Concert Choir under the direction of Gregg Smith, with the Columbia Percussion Ensemble. The record notation is Columbia Masterworks MS 6991/mono ML 6391. GSS was later to privileged to perform “Les Noces” for Stravinsky in 1969, at the last public concert he attended.
Stravinsky's “Introitus” was recorded in New York City by Columbia Masterworks on February 9, 1966. The Gregg Smith Singers and the Columbia Chamber Ensemble were featured. Stravinsky conducted.
Gregg Smith and the Ithaca College Concert Choir came to Los Angeles in late spring, 1966. They had been working on music for Stravinsky’s “Perséphone,” which was performed at the Los Angeles Music Festival on May 5, 1966, with Igor Stravinsky conducting. What had now become the West Coast Gregg Smith Singers also sang in this concert, along with the Texas Boys Choir. Vera Zorina was the narrator. Michel Molese sang the tenor solo.
Other works performed at this all-Stravinsky concert included: “Four Etudes,” the “Symphony in E flat,” Op. 1, “Largo” and “Finale,” and “Five Orchestral Songs,” all conducted by Robert Craft. Karen Armstrong was the soloist in the latter piece.
“Perséphone” was recorded May 4-7, 1966 in Los Angeles by Columbia Masterworks using the West Coast Gregg Smith Singers, the Ithaca College Concert Choir and the Texas Boys Choir, with Robert Craft conducting.
Later in 1966, Gregg Smith and the Ithaca College Concert Choir were requested to begin rehearsing a new piece by Stravinsky: the “Requiem Canticles.” Written between 1965 and 1966, and finished in August 1966, it was the last large-scale choral/orchestral piece that Igor Stravinsky would compose.
The “Requiem Canticles” was a twelve-tone piece. Its premiere performance was commissioned by Princeton University and Stanley Seeger, in memory of his mother, Helen Buchanan Seeger. She had been a benefactor of Princeton University and especially of the Princeton Music Department.
Gregg Smith: “Stravinsky was often at rehearsals for the Requiem Canticles.” He was there and listening very intently. The preliminary work was always done by Robert Craft, but Stravinsky was also listening at every rehearsal. He didn't talk too much at rehearsals, and never to the performers. But he would make very careful notes and speak to Robert Craft, who would then make changes.”
Gregg Smith: “There were times when I sat next to Stravinsky when he was monitoring a rehearsal. He would look at the music, rather than the choir, following the score seemingly note by note, pointing and following with his finger.”
“Sometimes I turned pages for Stravinsky—something that needed to be done just right. The only time I ever saw Stravinsky get angry was when I didn't turn the page fast enough. It was over in a flash, but it was pretty intense. He himself was so precise and so professional, used to relying on himself. I think it was hard for him in the later years, when he couldn't “do everything” himself. Still, that was unusual, his becoming angry. He understood the problems any professional performance of contemporary music could create and appeared to have great respect for performers willing to dedicate themselves to making difficult music accessible.”
The “Requiem Canticles” was premiered at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey on October 8, 1966. Besides the Ithaca College Concert Choir, others involved in the production included the New York-based Gregg Smith Singers and a solo quartet featuring: Linda Anderson, Elaine Bonazzi, Charles Bresler and Donald Gramm. Robert Craft conducted.
The “Requiem Canticles” was subsequently recorded in New York City by John McClure on October 11, 1966 for CBS Masterworks, using the Ithaca Choir and the Gregg Smith Singers.
The year of 1967 was a busy year of recording for the Gregg Smith Singers and CBS Masterworks’ Director John McClure. GSS joined E. Power Biggs and George Bragg’s Texas Boys Choir for a series of historic recordings of music of Gabrieli, made in San Marco in Venice. The recording was entitled, “The Glory of Gabrieli,” and won for GSS their second Grammy award.
Later that year, the Gregg Smith Singers and the Ithaca College Concert Choir performed and recorded “Four Songs for Chorus and Orchestra” by Charles Ives in Carnegie Hall, with Leopold Stokowski conducting.
The ballet of “Requiem Canticles” choreographed by George Balanchine with the New York City Ballet, was premiered May 2, 1968 at the New York City Ballet Theater in Lincoln Center, New York City. The Columbia Symphony Orchestra and the Ithaca College Concert Choir and New York-based GSS were conducted by Robert Craft. The cast included Suzanne Farrell and Arthur Mitchell. Soloists were Linda Anderson, Elaine Bonazzi, Charles Bressler and Donald Gramm.
An “Homage to Stravinsky” concert was held September 6, 1968 at the Los Angeles Museum as part of Monday Evening Concerts. Lawrence Morton made arrangements. According to Lillian Libman, Gregg Smith prepared the chorus in California for the concert, including “the world premiere of all four preliminary versions of “Les Noces.”