The Stravinsky Years
Written by Kim Rich, with Gregg Smith and Rosalind Rees
Photography by Marilyn Shaw
This website project was funded in part with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
It was 1959 and the Gregg Smith Singers were being used as the chorus for Igor Stravinsky at the very prestigious Los Angeles Music Festival run by the great film composer Franz Waxman (“Sunset Boulevard”) who, seven years earlier, had started his own music festival at UCLA. (Franz Waxman, another ex-patriot composer who, like Igor Stravinsky, came to the United States in the years preceding World War II, remains well-known for his excellent film scores.)
I drove up the hill to Stravinsky’s house, which was nestled in among similar homes. It was nicely sandwiched between two like houses on the hillside. I drove up in front and parked on the street. I came to the door and was greeted by a little, gnome-like man who was smiling broadly. He seemed a little tipsy, but indeed was Stravinsky. As he led me into his library, gestured me to sit down and disappeared, what caught my eye was a picture on the wall of a funeral procession of gondolas. It turned out to be in Venice for Diaghilev’s funeral, circa 1930.
Twelve years later, I was in another gondola procession—also in Venice—but this time it was Stravinsky’s own funeral procession. Talk about Déjà vu!
The Gregg Smith Singers got started by a fluke. In 1955, I was a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and was also a member of the madrigal singers on campus. The group’s director, Raymond Moreman (who was also the chairman of the department), got a call from a Hollywood producer who was looking for a cheap choir to record some choral music of Stephen Foster for a background on a film portraying Foster’s life. There were no choral arrangements. Moreman could not accept the assignment for the school, but he recommended me to take on the task of making arrangements and choosing, and rehearsing singers. (Peter Turbok, John Craven, Yvonne deMiranda, Phoebe Liebig, Dick Grimaldi and Beverly Fritts are among the fifteen or so singers that I remember.)
We did a good job and the producer was happy enough with our work to say that he might have more work for us. We youngsters decided to stay together in hopes of more jobs. We actually did get one more job, but we did not wait, but rather decided to stay together and in the meantime, picked up a few more non-paying jobs and decided to put on a concert of our own.
We produced a Christmas concert in 1956 at the Assistance League Playhouse. I found that there was a cantata by Respighi that, as far as I could tell, had never been done in the United States—“Laud to the Nativity.” We put on a performance of it with eight instruments (I had never conducted instruments before). Lo and behold, we got a very nice review from the Los Angeles Times. Walter Arlen, a graduate classmate of mine, was the kind critic.
We decided to keep on as a chorus and the next year—1957—we had an invitation, thanks to my composition teacher, Leonard Stein, from the Monday Evening Concerts to perform a very modern work by Swedish composer, Ingvar Lidholm, entitled: “Laudi.” It really wasn’t a great performance, but in Los Angeles, no one had a choir that was willing to tackle contemporary music.
Next year—1958—we premiered two pieces from Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 27 for the same Monday Evening Concert series. That summer, having begged and borrowed to raise money to make a trip to Europe—and thanks to a dear friend, Ernst Krenek—we landed one concert in London and, later on, a concert at the Mozarteum in Salzburg.
In 1959, we made a recording for Verve Records, which was attempting to exploit the new stereophonic craze: Music in Multidimensional Sound. We also landed another spot on Monday Evening Concerts—this time as the chorus for Robert Craft, who was conducting Bach Cantata 4.
Also in 1959, Max Gershunov, acting on behalf of Franz Waxman’s Los Angeles Music Festival, asked the Gregg Smith Singers to participate in the festival. We would be performing with Igor Stravinsky in two choral works of his—“The Nightingale” and “Les Noces.” Our performances went well and we were then asked to return, this time for performances of Stravinsky’s “Mass” and “Symphony of Psalms.”
In 1962, we were asked to learn a new work of Stravinsky’s. It was a very short a capella piece called “Anthem—The Dove Descending Breaks the Air.” The piece was a twelve-tone work and quite difficult. I remember that we had a small rehearsal room on Westwood Avenue, where we could fit twelve singers, and Stravinsky, accompanied by Robert Craft, came to listen to the rehearsals. I was conducting. During the rehearsal, Stravinsky said little—he didn’t often speak. But he listened. Intently.