Gregg Smith, one of the great composers in American choral music, died this past summer. I was one week into rehabbing from hip surgery when I heard from my friends about Gregg’s passing. Although Gregg’s health had been in decline for quite a while, I found myself unprepared for this loss.
The depth of loss I felt surprised me. I had not seen Gregg for several years. He had retired from the Long Island Symphonic Choral Association quite a few years ago and given the honorary title, Conductor Emeritus. I had only seen him maybe twice or three times at concerts since his retirement.
He kept his eyes fixed on me, grinning broadly as if he had discovered a new color in a rainbow
Gregg had looked out for me. When I joined LISCA, my friend Viv made Gregg aware of my music. The day that Viv introduced me to Gregg, he kept his eyes fixed on me, grinning broadly as if he had discovered a new color in a rainbow. He was pleased to meet me, and it was obvious his pleasure was sincere.
The first time I participated in Gregg’s composer workshops in Manhattan, I brought along my a cappella choral work, “The Pasture”, based on the poem by Robert Frost. I was still teaching middle school, working in the local Methodist church, recently married and of course, managing my JRA. I desperately wanted a career as a composer, for many reasons, and by far the top reason was that writing music has and always will be my passion and joy.
The Gregg Smith Singers sang my piece. “The Pasture” is simple, 5-part, mixed voice a cappella song based on the poem from Frost’s collection of poems called “North of Boston”. I wrote it for to express the feelings I had on the departure of my friend, Pastor Tim Riss, from the Methodist church where I served as music director. It provided a salve during a difficult transition.
After Gregg gave the final cut-off on the first hearing, he looked at me with tears coming down his cheeks.
After Gregg gave the final cut-off on the first hearing, he looked at me with tears coming down his cheeks. “Where did you find those chords, Michael? They are beautiful!” Smiles spread throughout the Singers’ ranks.
I have a hard time remembering the remainder of the workshop, the thrill of Gregg’s validation was all I could think of. I do remember, following the workshop, I stepped outside the old church building, down the steps to the city sidewalk, and floated down the city streets back to the train station. Gregg Smith loved my song! Gregg Smith cried at the end of my song!
“The Pasture” wasn’t performed in a concert by the Gregg Smith Singers due to copyright permissions at the time, but Gregg did program my “O Vos Omnes” a few years later in his Gregg Smith Singers concert series. Over the years I participated in several more Composer Workshops run by Gregg. These workshops taught me a lot and provided me with friendships I carry with me to this day.
A few years following the workshop with “The Pasture”, I came out as transgender.
A few years following the workshop with “The Pasture”, I came out as transgender. I had a difficult time sharing this with Gregg. In many ways he reminded me of my grandfather. He was always so warm and loving and I shouldn’t have expected anything other than love and warmth from Gregg. But I also felt he was “old school”, like my grandfather, and I felt he would betray true feelings of disappointment.
For the final Gregg Smith Singers’ Composers Workshop, I decided that my success in life and in composing would only find a true path if I was open and honest with not only myself, but everybody in the music world. So, I attended the final Composers Workshop “out” and proud of who I was and what I had recently written, which was “I’ll Fly Away”.
for the second time, after the workshop, I floated down the city streets back to the train station.
Gregg couldn’t have been more accepting. He “got it” from the very moment I walked through the doors to the rehearsal room. And so did his Singers. It was incredibly liberating, and for the second time, after the workshop, I floated down the city streets back to the train station.
After Gregg retired from LISCA and Tom Schmidt was hired as Conductor, I was brought on as Assistant Conductor. After several wonderful years working as Tom’s assistant, I left my post to concentrate on my own choral group, Long Island Voices. Following my time with LISCA, I began slowly “coming out” as transgender in the local music community. It’s one thing to “come out” with the Gregg Smith Singers in New York City, but it’s another thing to “come out” so close to home.
I looked around to see the hundreds of lives Gregg made a permanent impression on.
This past week, as I sat with my daughter at Gregg’s Memorial Service, I looked around to see the hundreds of lives Gregg made a permanent impression on. And many of the faces I saw were familiar. Following the service, I was welcomed once again, with hugs and warm smiles, by so many singers who I’ve sung with or conducted or who have sung my music. And again, I felt at home. I have transitioned, and yet I still belong.
I suppose we have all transitioned over the past decade, in our own ways. And yet, Gregg still brings us together, both in life and in death. He meets us with a broad grin as if we are his favorite color of the rainbow.