James G. Smith is home again.
After stints at two of the country's top music schools, after doctoral work, choral directing and singing everywhere from a manufacturer's Christmas glee club to the Baltimore Civic Opera, this graduate of Anacostia High School ends a 27-year absence from Washington with this appointment as choral director at George Mason University.
Smith was named to the position recently, after the death last year of Gilbert King, the university's first choral director.
The seeds of Smith's musical caeeer were planted at Anacostia High School. "I had a very good voice teacher there," Smith said, "who was wise enough to tell me that, as a teen-ager, studying the voice was not important. Instead, he told me to study the piano."
Smith took the advice and earned bachelor's and master's degrees in piano from Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory. But singing -- at weddings, funerals, banquets -- paid the bills for Smith and his young family.
It also helped widen his musical rnage. Under the leadership of Rosa Ponselle, director of the Baltimore Civic Opera, Smith took minor roles in Puccini's "Tosca" and Bizet's "carmen" with the opera. But Smith soon realized he was not destined to be a major star.
"i suppose I could have made a career doing minor operatic roles," he muses, "but I don't think my voice would have ever developed enough for a major role."
The blow of his sharply honed realism was softened by his first postgradeate job as a music instructor at Louisiana Tech University. There, he found his great love -- directing choral music. The job convinced him to work toward a doctoral degree in choral music, which he earned at the University of Illinois.
After seven years as a music instructor at Illinois, Smith joined the faculty at the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.
At Eastman, Smith says, he directed a "quality of students and performances I may never see again."
But there also were some drawbacks. "The students believed they should train for only the best roles in opera,"Smith said, "though few such jobs are even open. They expressed no interest in choral work -- the area in I am most vitally interested."
After three years at Eastman, Smith was offered the chance to become choral director at George Mason -- an offer he couldn't refuse.
Although Smith's professional work focuses on work with serious music students, he enjoys -- in fact, searches out -- work with amateurs. "The amateur," he says, "adds a dimension of enthusiasm and spontaneity."
At George Mason, he encourages both students and community members to join a university chorus for an intrest which, he says, should go "deeper than fun. It is a profound experience which will enrich their lives now and in the future."
All George Mason students may join the University Chorale, which meets on the campus during the day. Anyone is welcome to join the University Chorus, which meets Wednesday evenings in the North Campus building. The chorus is presently working toward its first concert on Oct. 26, which will reflect Smith's wide range of musical tastes.
Featuring a new work by Glenn Smith, a faculty member at George Mason, the concert will include works by Schubert, Bach, Brahms and Mozart, whom Smith calls music's "greatest genius."
Although Smith admires all music -- folk, jazz, popular -- and likes to encourage new composers, most of his energies are spent on "art music," serious works by trained composers.
Smith is not afraid to ask his amateurs to tackle difficult "art music." Last Sunday, for instance, at a community "sing-along," he invited the general public to join the Univrsity Chorale and Chorus in Brahms' "German Requiem," an ambitious undertaking for any choral group.
Backed by an 50-member orchestra and featruing solos by Linda Mabbs, a faculty member at the University of Maryland, and John Bennetch of the U.S. Army Chorus, the choral reading was designed, as Smith said, to "give everyone an opportunity to encounter the work and enjoy it in an uppressured atmosphere."
With the exception of the approachable fourth section, few nonprofessional singers have encountered the "requiem." But the audience Sunday -- which ranged from silver-haired grandfathers to the 8-year-old daughter of a University Chorus member -- seemed to enjoy a chance to try the massive work.
The musical talent of the group ran deep, and the reading flowed with relative grace. After an orderly first section, Smith acknowledged the audience's expertise, gave them clipped instructions and led them through an enthusiastic rendition of the work.
The group strove valiantly through the complexities of the third movement but ended with beauty on a peaceful, optimistic note.
"i think they achieved what they set out to do," said a soprano in the audience who said she had sung the "Requiem" with a professional group in London last summer. "it was pretty loose, but a lot of fun."