Daniel Smith is more fortunate than most of the artists I meet in his sizeable catalogue of recordings. A bassoonist, Smith aspires to be the musician who will bring to his instrument the sort of popular appeal that Rampal and Galway brought to the flute and Stolzman to the clarinet. Playing the bassoon is useful in finding orchestral employment, launching a solo career on the bassoon is another matter. A major manager confided to me that he was unwilling to sign a prominent oboist because "the concert-going public isn't ready to foot the bill." Yet the oboe is well understood as a solo instrument compared with the bassoon. Daniel Smith, with talent, luck, and persistence, has built an impressive discography, and hopes to change all this.
No child prodigy, Smith took up the bassoon at the relatively late age of 24, after beginning music studies in his late teens. "I started everything late in life. I was 16 years old and knew nothing whatsoever about music. It was New Year's Eve, and I was watching Benny Goodman and his trio on television-I was fascinated. I then went with my cousin, who was taking drum lessons at a local music studio, and asked if I could take lessons on the same instrument I saw-this beautiful 'trumpet' that Benny Goodman played. I went on and on about trumpet lessons till the teacher asked me to describe the instrument. The long, black instrument with the beautiful sound turned out, of course, to be the clarinet. That is how I got started in music-I was already a senior in High School. A year or two later I entered college (Manhattan School of Music) as a clarinet major, having by then also studied the saxophone, and then midway started to study the flute and finally switched to and eventually graduated with a degree on that instrument. I then served time in the army and became the solo piccolo player with the West Point Band. Before finishing my three-year hitch, I realized that I had better find an instrument which I could make a living from-I already had one child, and double reeds were in demand. That was the reason I learned the bassoon: purely for survival. With bassoon, flute, piccolo, clarinet, and all the saxophones, I could get studio work, show band work, or whatever came my way."
Smith's first civilian engagement was with the Shakespeare Festival Orchestra at Stratford, Connecticut. As he scrambled to make ends meet, Smith kept studying, taught, performed, and ultimately fell in love with his instrument. Over a period of time, Smith studied the bassoon with several major teachers including Bernard Garfield, Sherman Walt, William Polisi, Harold Golzer,and Steve Maxym, and also Bert Bial and Richard Plaster on contrabassoon.
Despite stints as a substitute bassoonist and contrabassoonist with the N.Y. Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera Orchestras, seasons with the New Jersey Symphony, and a growing list of recital dates, Smith found his direction for the future in recordings. Smith's first recording-18th Century Bassoon Concerti, Vol. 1-was made for Daniel Nimitz's Spectrum label. After Volume Two was issued, and a third disc appeared on the Crystal label, Smith took a 'quantum' leap and recorded with the English Chamber Orchestra for ASV.
As Smith tells it: "I had friends in London who lived around the corner from violinist Jose Luis Garcia, leader of the English Chamber Orchestra. We were just sitting around chatting when one of them asked me if I would ever be interested in recording with the ECO. I replied that it would be like a dream come true. She said, 'why don't you pick up the phone and call Jose Luis, he's just around the corner?' Fortunately he was home and his first question was 'do you have any recordings?' Even more fortunately he liked them when he heard them. So we then began a recording relationship which now includes several volumes of Vivaldi and a disc of Vivaldi, Graupner and J.C. Bach concerti."
Smith's cordial relationship with the English Chamber Orchestra didn't help him when he was invited to audition for the principal bassoon position of the London Symphony Orchestra. "It came down to a matter of playing styles. They liked my playing, but the manager confided to me that their bassoonists did not use any or much vibrato. I have now modified my sound over the years and use vibrato with more restraint, but none? I've tried playing without it, but then the sound lacks warmth and feeling. I always strive for personal involvement in my playing, and the tone I now produce-it's character and timbre-go a long way to carry my message."
Smith has also sought to carry his message through his many recordings. "Recordings are a critical measure of an artist's success, and the principal way to reach a wide public. They are also essential in being signed up by management."
When I suggested that the English Chamber Orchestra heard last season at Carnegie Hall, admittedly at the end of a long tour, didn't have the polish of the record ensemble, he replied that the orchestra was "awesome" to work with in a recording situation.
"No matter how well prepared you are, it's unnerving to realize that they are sight-reading the music for the first time and playing it almost flawlessly."
Smith also demands perfection for his recordings. "I recently played a series of recitals on a major cruise ship - some of my best playing technically and interpretively - yet those performances could never serve as recordings. There were minor imperfections, though not necessarily mistakes: for example, a blur as I move from one note to another because the airstream had a slight gap in it. In a recording situation, all such imperfections must be edited out and sometimes a number of takes are required to fix such problems."
I mentioned a recent recording of an oboe concerto that stymied some audiophile friends who didn't realize that the clicking noises they couldn't identify were the instrument's key-clicks. For me, they were part of the reality and illusion of recorded performance (like the occasional dropped note), and in no way detracted from my enjoyment. Smith has his instrument serviced prior to each recording session so that "when you run up and down the keys, it's as quiet as a flute". Smith also prefers engineers who know where to place microphones to capture the essence of the bassoon sound". After recording sessions, he spends weeks listening to the unedited and then semi-edited takes, usually finding small flaws and then dashing off a letter or phone call to producers in London to fix such matters before issuing the recording. "The producer's role during the session is essential. You are so focused on what you are doing that you may not be aware of an imperfection on your part or in the orchestra. The producer must be the ideal listener who hears everything going on. Once the sessions are finished, then it is my responsibility to go over the unedited takes many times and catching anything he might have missed."
Smith's goal is to transfer the perfection of the recordings to his live performances. "I've come very close to the point where I can now play concerts with virtually no problems. I also need to take musical risks in order to explore the music fully. From my experiences as a recording and performing artist, I feel that I can take such risks and my technique will see me through. At some point several years ago, I decided that I had plenty of instruction from top teachers and had already begun a respectable career. Now I play the bassoon and don't think about any so-called 'schools' or 'styles' of bassoon playing. I try to make the music come alive and say what it means to me."
Smith's belief in his instrument has led him to record a wide repertory-from the project of recording all 37 Vivaldi bassoon concerti (many are first recordings) to even less frequently heard works by Danzi and Reicha, and a stunning Suite for Bassoon and String Quartet by Gordon Jacob, plus a 'crossover' recording with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for Kemdisc- "Bassoon Bon-Bons". Is there a limit to quality repertoire for the bassoon? Smith says that there are "shelves full of music to record", and he is tireless in sharing his vision for his instrument and it's music. There's a built-in bias in the music business that if something hasn't been done, then it won't work. It's like the four minute mile and the first man on the moon. My favorite example is that when manager Michael Emmerson wanted to launch James Galway's solo career, people in the industry told him it couldn't be done, there was already Jean-Pierre Rampal and no chance for another major soloist on the flute!"
"The bassoon too can come into it's own. After all, it is the last woodwind, and perhaps the last of all the instruments, to have it's champion and promoter. Plenty of modern composers have written enjoyable and challenging works for bassoon. I also did a fiendishly difficult contrabassoon concerto by Gunther Schuller a few seasons ago and Berhard Crusell, the Finnish composer, has done a wonderful Concertino for Bassoon and Orchestra."
Reaching the audience with his instrument leads Smith to program recitals with music ranging from sonatas to crossover and humorous pieces, ragtime, and bravura encores. "I always speak to the audience, they enjoy this contact with the performer as much as the recital itself. There are many great musicians sitting in orchestras who lack the personality to be solo performers in this fashion. A soloist puts all of his training aside and tries to present to the audience convincing interpretations of all the music, from the 'classical' pieces as well as the lighter selections. You have to put yourself on the line when doing this."
The public, for Smith, is the true test of whether what you are doing is successful. "I have an old friend, a school teacher in Brooklyn, who has always wanted to be a writer. He told me that if he wrote a book and only one person in the world read it and liked it, he would be satisfied. I disagree. You have to put yourself to the test. You have to let other people experience your artistry to truly know if it is first rate. If not, you are deluding yourself. And if you are really good at what you do, will everyone appreciate it? Emphatically no! But if you experience all of this and keep the passion alive, you ultimately become a true artist and performer." Smith has set himself a daunting challenge.
- Michael Fine