Friends and Faculty Salute Jim Smith
By Diane Krieger
Although Jim Smith succumbed to brain cancer in September, the classical guitar department he lovingly chaired for 35 years isn’t quite ready to let go.
Colleagues, friends and former students are planning a flurry of events over the semester, which they playfully have dubbed “the Spring of Jim Smith.” The events begin Jan. 19 in Bovard Auditorium with a musical celebration of Smith’s life. In addition to video tributes and a photo montage, there will be homages from classical guitar legends such as Christopher Parkening (Smith’s former teacher) and Pepe Romero (a longtime USC faculty colleague). The Grammy Award-winning Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (whose members were Smith’s students) will play their late mentor’s arrangement of Debussy’s La Soirée dans Grenade. Current students, some 25 of them, will perform a movement from Holst’s St. Paul Suite, transcribed by Smith for large guitar ensemble. Yale classical guitar chair Ben Verdery will offer a Bach sarabande. Longtime friends and frequent collaborators John Walz (principal cellist with the L.A. Opera), David Shostac (principal flutist with the L.A. Chamber Orchestra) and USC faculty pianist Antoinette Perry will perform chamber works by Rachmaninoff, Schubert and Bach. Soprano vocalist Sun Young Kim, violinist Endre Balogh, saxophonist Douglas Masek and lutenist Jason Yoshida all will make their musical adieus.
Smith – who came to USC in 1970 as a graduate student and stayed on as a faculty member for the rest of his life – touched so many lives that no single concert could do him justice. Generous mentor and teacher, esteemed chamber music scholar, prolific arranger, tireless guitar impresario and new music advocate, busy concert artist endowed with perfect pitch and an uncanny polyphonic brain, perhaps Smith’s greatest gift was a boundless passion for music – indeed, passion bordering on obsession.
“Jim was a serial concertgoer,” said USC faculty guitarist and composer Brian Head, who as acting chair, is organizing the “Spring of Jim Smith.” “He would go to a concert pretty much every night. He never missed a student concert, never, ever, ever.” Himself a former student of Smith’s, Head said: “I can probably count on one hand the number of concerts of mine in the last 25 years – I mean Santa Barbara, San Diego, anywhere in Southern California – that Jim missed. And it wasn’t just me. Every one of his students, former students, friends. He just loved music.”
The second installment in the “Spring of Jim Smith” will be a concert focusing on living composers whom Smith encouraged to write for guitar. Slated for Feb. 4 in Jeannette McDonald Hall, this faculty concert will feature pieces by Dusan Bogdanovic, Bryan Johanson, David Leisner and Robert Lynn. Head will play his own early piece, “Finder’s Fee,” dedicated to Smith in gratitude for the rent-controlled apartment he was lucky enough to sublet from Smith’s manicurist upon first arriving in Los Angeles.
A third program in Newman Hall on March 24, timed near Smith’s birthday, is the final concert. For decades, Smith showcased new guitar music and new arrangements at this annual event. This time, the spotlight will be on iconic pieces that Smith brought to the guitar repertoire, such as minimalist composer Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, which had its “live” world premiere at USC in 1990. Scored for solo electric guitar and pre-recorded tape (a looped overdub using 10 guitars and two electric basses), the piece intrigued Smith. So he transcribed the taped portion and recruited a dozen guitar students to perform it in concert. Reich was “blown away,” according to Head, when he heard the tapeless version. You will be too.
The James Smith Memorial Concert will be held Jan. 19 at 7:30 p.m. in Bovard Auditorium. Admission is free, but an RSVP is requested (send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 213-740-6474). For more information on the later events, go to www.usc.edu/music.