Updated: October 27, 2013 at 4:06 pm
One of Colorado Springs Philharmonic's beloved conductors put down his final baton on Friday.
Lawrence Leighton Smith, music director since 2000, died under hospice care from complications due to Binswanger's Disease, a form of dementia. He was 77 years old.
"It's part of my journey," Smith said in an interview with The Gazette's T.D. Mobley-Martinez in 2011. "Thank God there's no pain. ... I know what's going to happen (with the disease). I say, bring it on."
Beethoven's "Symphony No. 9" was his last performance with the orchestra in April 2011. The 2010-2011 season was his 11th in Colorado Springs. He joined the orchestra in 2000, when it was still known as the Colorado Springs Symphony. But in 2003, the orchestra filed for bankruptcy. Smith stayed.
"Larry did something that no music director had done in American musical history," said David Sckolnik, classical music critic for The Gazette. "He put his hat in with the musicians. He took their side in opposition to the board position, and it really made a difference for what the musicians were trying to accomplish - trying to keep the orchestra intact. The board was trying to reduce the symphony to a much smaller ensemble. For him to cast his lot with the musicians was astounding. It probably saved our orchestra."
The symphony re-emerged later in 2003 as the philharmonic.
"He was exactly the right conductor at exactly the right time," said Nathan Newbrough, president and CEO of the philharmonic. Newbrough joined the orchestra in mid-2008. "He came in when the orchestra needed hope and a resurgence of energy, and he brought that in spades, along with an authority behind his conducting that not many others could have. He brought the orchestra up to a level where he could hand off the baton to his successor, Josep Caball?Domenech."
Smith was born April 8, 1936, in Portland, Ore. He trained as a pianist with Ariel Rubstein in Portland and Leonard Shure in New York City, and earned bachelor's degrees from Portland State University in 1956 and Mannes College of Music in 1959. He earned a doctorate from the University of Louisville in 1992.
Peggy Shivers, a local humanitarian and arts supporter, studied music in college with Smith in Oregon. They were in a touring group, she said. She sang soprano and Smith played piano.
"He was a wonderful person," Shivers said. "He was brilliant, first of all, but he did not mind helping people who weren't as gifted as he was. I always like to say he was smart, but not a nerd."
Smith would do anything for people, she said.
"Larry performed for me for my concert series (the local Shivers Fund concerts)," she said. "He played for my husband's service when he (artist Clarence Shivers) passed away, and it just meant the world."
Smith won first prize in the Mitropoulos International Conducting Competition in 1964, named for the Greek conductor, pianist and composer Dimitri Mitropoulos, and went on to be assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera from 1964-1967. He was music director for the Louisville Orchestra from 1982-1993 and principal guest conductor of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra from 1997-2000.
His work preceded him wherever he went.
"He was one of the most foremost authorities on not only orchestral repertoire, but also the modern American music that was coming out of the second half of the 20th century," Newbrough said. "Larry in his work, especially with the Louisville Orchestra, it can't be overstated - he was instrumental in championing works of the many who were then young American composers, who now have careers that have turned into big successes."
He appeared with most of the major symphonies as a guest conductor, including Baltimore, Cincinnati, Grand Rapids, Honolulu, Quebec, Saint Louis, Dallas, Rochester, Syracuse, Indianapolis, Tampa, Santa Barbara, Miami and the New York Philharmonic. He served as the music director of the Sunriver Music Festival in Oregon for almost two decades.
"To be around somebody with such incredible musical knowledge and passion," said Sckolnik, "matched with a never ceasing childlike amazement with everything he did, was one of a kind. There was no one like him."
In 1986, Smith became the first American conductor to record with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, and the recordings, entitled "The Moscow Sessions," featured works by Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Shostakovich.
"There's such admiration among the musicians for this man who was as charismatic in his personality as he was with his baton," Newbrough said. "From his first days, he loomed large. They knew of his background and astonishing success, and he came in with credibility that a less experienced conductor could not have had so early on. From the beginning the musicians had a love affair with him."
He is survived by his wife, Leslie Smith.
A celebration of his life will be held Nov. 16-17. Details to be announced at facebook.com/conductorlawrenceleightonsmith.
Contact Jennifer Mulson at 636-0270.