David Weininger, The Boston Globe | March 7, 2008
Michael Beattie, Emmanuel Music's associate conductor and chorus master, remembers what he felt when he heard that Craig Smith had died. He was on the road at the time, far from Emmanuel Church and the friend and mentor he'd known for almost 20 years.
"I just thought, I think I need to go back and pack up my things and just quietly walk out of the church and leave this behind me," he says. "There was this feeling that it's over."
Smith's death in November, at the age of 60, robbed Boston of one of its musical pillars and left Emmanuel Music, the organization he founded in 1970, without its guiding spirit. In the eyes of many, the identity of Emmanuel Music began and ended with Smith, making the question of what is left of the group after his passing a painfully unresolved one.
And yet, as its dark winter moves toward spring, there are signs that Emmanuel is ready to begin looking to the future. On the eve of its first major production of the season - Bach's St. John Passion, with Beattie conducting - the group seems committed to persevering, even if unsure of its precise direction. There's a sense of lingering sadness, but not of trauma or paralysis. Conversations with a cross-section of Emmanuel musicians paint a picture of an organization determined to retain the special place in Boston's music scene that its founder so lovingly carved out.
"The surprise that we've experienced since he has been gone - and it's a given that we miss him every day - is that there's an incredible energy and enthusiasm and insistence on keeping going," says Beattie.
"I think everybody's inspired, in a way," says tenor Frank Kelley, who joined Emmanuel's chorus in 1987 and is a frequent soloist. "We're so directed onto making sure that what has happened will be able to continue that people are reenergized into making as high quality a product as possible to honor Craig's memory."
In a way, the evolution has been underway for some time, as Smith's illness had in recent years forced him to cut back on his activity. John Harbison, who was named Emmanuel's acting artistic director in December, says that Smith's penchant for including others in the artistic process morphed from virtue into necessity as his health declined.
"Craig's illness over the last couple of years was very severe," Harbison explains. Beattie estimates that during that span he conducted the Bach cantata at Sunday services about half the time. Harbison stepped in often as well. "So that transition is in some ways road tested," Harbison says.
Having the two veterans guiding Emmanuel through this period has been "invaluable," says Kelley. "That gave us a grounding that was absolutely necessary."
"John has definitely jumped in with both feet," says Tom Stephenson, a bassoonist who began playing with Emmanuel in the 1970s. To illustrate, he tells the story of a recent Sunday morning, when a snowstorm made it difficult for musicians to reach the church. Most of the orchestra and vocal soloists were absent, and only some of the chorus members were on hand. The expectation was that there'd be no cantata performed.
Harbison was there, though. "And during the service, John reassigned the [vocal] solo parts to people who were there and played the cantata himself on the organ," Stephenson says. "That was really quite amazing."
In fact, the Sunday cantatas themselves have given Emmanuel some stability. The regular contact with Bach's work in its liturgical setting - what Beattie calls "the work in the trenches, week to week" - has provided Emmanuel's musicians with a fixed point during a time of uncertainty.
"It's been said many times that the cantatas are the core of things, in the sense that people are there every week performing this repertoire with each other," says Stephenson. "So there's a sense of shared experience that sort of transcends any particular person, including the leader."
The cantata series, of course, was Emmanuel's raison d'etre when Smith put the group together. It is the paradigmatic example of what makes the group unique - certainly in Boston and possibly the world. And yet there is no guarantee it will continue once a new artistic director is named. That the group will change in some way seems to be a necessity, yet there is unease about the prospect of Emmanuel leaving aside some of its cherished traditions.
"It's a tough question," says Beattie. "And it's a question that gives those of us who are closely associated with the group a lot of pain to think about sometimes. It's not just about having lost Craig but looking at the possibility of things changing - perhaps more than we'd like."
"There are some people for whom this has been the center of their musical and spiritual lives for a really long time," says Kelley. Necessarily, "there is some trepidation involved in that."
Pat Krol, Emmanuel's executive director, says that a search committee, composed of Emmanuel Music board members and musicians as well as Emmanuel Church leaders, is being formed, with a goal of having a new artistic director on board in 2009.
"Emmanuel needs to continue to do what it did under Craig's leadership, which is to offer expertise and involvement in things that are not otherwise available," says Harbison, citing the cantatas: "They don't have to continue as the automatic future, but they are certainly something that it's hard to find anywhere in the world."
He also mentions Emmanuel's chamber series, which explores a large portion of a composer's works, as well as the company's presentation of obscure operas such as Schumann's "Genoveva" and Schubert's "Alfonso and Estrella," which Smith led in recent years. "When you look at the whole cultural scene, where else are they? The answer is, nowhere. I think that's where the blood of the organization is."
Whatever Emmanuel's future direction, its greatest challenge may be maintaining the sense that it's more of a utopian community than a musical job. That may be Smith's most enduring legacy.
"When you first get into music, you have this idealized view of what it's going to be like," says Stephenson. "And the reality is usually somewhat different than that. Playing in Emmanuel over the years, both the level and the compatibility of the musicians, and Craig, and the fact that you felt like you were able to play or sing your best in that environment . . . it's kind of an idealized place and way to make music. And that's a very rare thing. One doesn't want to give it up."
For now, though, Emmanuel's musicians are deep in preparation for the St. John Passion with Beattie, rather than Smith, on the podium. Beattie conducted Emmanuel's concert version of Handel's "Ariodante" last year, so this isn't his first time doing a major work there. Still, he admits that leading the Bach in Smith's shadow will be "a little bit daunting."
On the other hand, he says, "One of Craig's great gifts is that he encouraged me and everyone else involved with the group to really bring our own personalities into the music making. I feel as though I just need to be as prepared as I possibly can and I'm just throwing myself in completely."
"I'm sure there will be those moments where we all remember Craig and we'll remember at that moment how he would be elated and have that look on his face," says Kelley. "But Michael's been here a long time, and we all know and love and support him. He will do a terrific job at this. So it's exciting for the tradition to be passed on and to continue, too."
Smith's spirit will undoubtedly linger in Emmanuel Church for some time.
"In a funny kind of way, I think we sort of feel Craig's presence constantly," says Beattie. "Even just being in the music library - which was completely put together by him - I see his writing and I hear his jokes and I remember profound things he said about certain pieces. He was such a strong personality that we feel the loss intensely. And yet it's amazing to me how he's sustaining us, in a way. And will for a long time, I think."
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