84-year-old Roseville conductor brings world-class touch to community orchestra

Maestro Henry Smith, conductor of the Mississippi Valley Orchestra, digitally composes a score inside his home office in Roseville. (Erin Hinrichs/Review)
Maestro Henry Smith, conductor of the Mississippi Valley Orchestra, digitally composes a score inside his home office in Roseville. (Erin Hinrichs/Review)
Henry Smith conducts the Mississippi Valley Orchestra at the Oct. 19 concert at First Lutheran Church in Columbia Heights in 2014. (submitted photo)
Henry Smith conducts the Mississippi Valley Orchestra at the Oct. 19 concert at First Lutheran Church in Columbia Heights in 2014. (submitted photo)

In the midst of the Cold War, Henry Charles Smith packed up his trombone and went on tour of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc nations with the Philadelphia Orchestra.  

“We were the first orchestra to play behind the Iron Curtain after the Second World War,” Smith says, conjuring up the details of the landmark cultural exchange.

As tensions between the world’s two superpowers persisted, Smith and his fellow musicians spent eight weeks traveling from city to city by train, sharing songs that had been pushed underground during the war.

Along the way, his hosts entrusted him with copies of trombone music that had been published behind the Iron Curtain but had not yet debuted in the west.

“I gave some of the first performances,” he says of the pieces, which are now played by all.

Smith recalls they were often greeted by their counterparts, who showed up to welcome them at the station. And when two Polish musicians came to the U.S. to play with the Philadelphia Orchestra three years later, Smith was able to repay the kindness by hosting them at his home.

“Music, it provides a safe haven [for] people who are different from each other,” Smith says. “They can share their love for something and their love for humanity. The differences fall away. Who cares about differences when you have something in common?”

The Cold War ended years ago, but Smith, 84, of Roseville continues to serve as an ambassador of classical music. Following a successful career with the Minnesota Orchestra, he’s now conducting the Mississippi Valley Orchestra, a West St. Paul-based community ensemble.

Drawing on a wealth of experience, he’s inspiring this group of amateur musicians to expand their repertoire—an achievement that will be showcased at the MVO’s May 3 concert titled “Metamorphosis, Apotheosis, Let it Swing!”   

A talent in high demand

Smith grew up in Philadelphia with his parents and sister. His introduction to music came in the form of violin lessons when he entered second grade. He signed up for clarinet lessons in sixth grade and says his teacher handed him a baritone horn instead. From there on out, he knew he wanted to pursue a career in music—an ambition that drove him far beyond his initial aspiration of becoming a high school band director.

He went on to earn an artist diploma in music performance from Curtis Institute of Music. In 1955, he got his first job as associate principal trombonist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He was promoted to principal trombonist two years later, under the world-renowned conductor Eugene Ormandy.

“During those years, it was the best orchestra in the world,” Smith says. “Every spring we got on our own private train and would tour clear across the country.”

Gradually shifting into the role of conductor, Smith took a job with the Minnesota Orchestra in 1971. For 17 years, he served as resident conductor, dividing his time between managing education and community outreach, performing and conducting over 1,000 concerts.

Ron Hasselmann, former associate principal trumpet player for the Minnesota Orchestra, came to know Smith well over the years. In fact, Smith was the best man in his wedding.

“He was always prepared. He gave cues so you knew exactly where you were and he liked to tell stories,” Hasselmann says. “Those were always very entertaining.”

From 1989 to 2001, Smith led the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra while doubling up on various academic posts and directing a youth orchestra at Interlochen, an international music camp.

‘A masterpiece every time’

Having enjoyed a successful career playing alongside other professionals, Smith could have settled into retirement. As fate would have it, though, he fell into the role of conductor for 60 amateur musicians who play in the MVO instead.

“I didn’t aspire to conduct an orchestra again. But this orchestra, they are so eager,” he says. “They just love to play music. They play music for all the right reasons.”

Smith says the late American conductor Robert Shaw had it right when he said amateurs are some of the best musicians because the root of the word—“amore”—means love. Simply put, they play for the love of music.

“When I was younger, some of the older players got pretty jaded and bored with playing Beethoven’s 5th for the hundredth time,” he says. “I hear something different in it every time. I recognize that it’s a masterpiece every time.

“There’s an excitment to bringing it to life. Old Beethoven is trapped in the book here. It’s up to us to bring it up into the air, into the ear.”

Smith’s gusto for storytelling and interpretation, combined with his talent, keeps members of the MVO captivated.

“I think he’s such a great addition to the group,” says Brian Jewell, vice president of the MVO. “We really have come so far in two years.”

Jewell says the sound of the group has improved under Smith’s direction, and they’re attracting larger audiences as well.

“He makes us all feel like we’re as good of a musician as he’s heard,” Jewell adds, noting Smith has a charisma on stage that’s hard to put into words and an ability to deliver constructive criticism without offending anyone.

Personal touches like Smith’s weekly group evaluation letters and humorous anecdotes during rehearsals have built a valued sense of community.

“One of them referred to [my letter] as the weekly love letter from Henry,” Smith says with a chuckle. “I relish their company. It’s really fun making music with them.”

Heading into a third season

The upcoming May 3 concert marks Smith’s seventh concert with the MVO. He’s recruited two guest cellists from the Minnesota Orchestra, Tony Ross and Beth Rapier, to compliment his orchestra and three area choirs on stage at Augustana Lutheran Church.

“I like to do pieces that feature the orchestra members, where there’s the strength to do it—to challenge them and make an interesting program,” Smith says.

The concert is free and open to the public.

Before the final concert of the MVO’s 39th season is complete, though, Smith has already begun planning ahead. Right now, he’s busy selecting music and corresponding with potential guest musicians for the upcoming season. It’s a routine he’s grown well accustomed to over the years.

The surge of anxiousness that comes with each new performance, however, never subsides.

“I’ll always get nervous, even though I’ve been doing this for 65 years,” he says. “You don’t do you best if you’re not teed up.”

Erin Hinrichs can be reached at 651-748-7814 and ehinrichs@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/EHinrichsNews.

If you go...

The Mississippi Valley Orchestra, under the baton of Maestro Henry Charles Smith, will present a free concert on Sunday, May 3, at 4 p.m. at Augustana Lutheran Church in West St. Paul.

Minnesota Orchestra cellists Beth Rapier and Tony Ross will perform with the MVO, as will Chorus Polaris, Colonial Chorale, and Christ Presbyterian Chancel Choir.

For more information, see the concert schedule on the MVO’s website at www.mississippivalleyorchestra.com.

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