THE MUSICAL PATH that led Daniel Smith to his Merkin Hall recital this week is not easy to follow, let alone guess. When, as a Bronx teenager he first saw Benny Goodman play the clarinet on television, he knew nothing about instruments but went straight to a music studio to ask for trumpet lessons! Needless to say, he was annoyed at what they showed him, but after describing it, he wound up with a long black thing like Goodman's.
Next, Smith enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music, whence he somehow emerged with a degree not in clarinet, but in flute. His trip through the woodwind family continued when he did his army service as the West Point Band's solo piccolo player. It was another band member who first showed him-at age 24-how to play the bassoon, suggesting that he might find more bassoon than flute work after he left the service. Sure enough, he went from West Point to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival as a substitute bassoonist, fumbling his way through notes he had known only for a year.
Continuing with the bassoon and making extra money for his growing family by playing (no, you can't guess) saxophone in Broadway shows and jazz bands, Smith worked himself up to a Tanglewood Festival Bassoon Fellowship. He now performs regularly in opera and chamber orchestras, with frequent solo stints here and in Europe.
"I did everything backwards and upside down" says Smith". Even more remarkable than his tortuous rise was his late parent's response to his choice of careers. Far from forcing him to practice, or being overjoyed that their son was a talented musician, they remained firmly negative, a fact that Smith hasn't quite got over.
As Smith tells it: "My father believed that you should never take risks-you should remain safe and secure. He wanted me to be an accountant or a schoolteacher. The person I became was at odds with what I was being prepared for. A person can be broken in spirit or break away and become more determined than the average person. Your tenacity becomes more than most people can conceive of. You know nothing will be given to you and you know what you have to overcome. I lost ten years of my life by negative forces. I had to undo what was within me. What I am now doing as a musician is not the normal route."
Smith is now well-settled as a bassoonist, but as a bassoon soloist he is still, like his instrument's literature, something of a rarity. As a result says Smith, "If you play a recital or concerto people are absolutely fascinated - it never fails that they come up to me after a concert and say 'I never knew it could play like that". Smith believes that the bassoon's expressiveness to be on a par with that of the cello or the human voice - a pleasant surprise to the listener whose familiarity does not extend past the Grandfather's theme in Peter and the Wolf.
In addition to 37 concertos of Vivaldi, Smith says that his repertoire includes another 15 to 25 other concertos, some of which he has recorded, and many other pieces as well. For example, his Merkin Hall concert will include a work by Demersseman, a short-lived 19th Century French composer, Elgar's Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra, and concertos by Vivaldi and Johann Christian Bach. He will be assisted by the New York Virtuosi Chamber Symphony conducted by Kenneth Klein, and also Michael May on both harpsichord and piano.
- Leslie Kandell