Poem: Stereophile Cuts an LP The Musicians part 3
The Pianist: Brooks Smith (footnote 2) has taught piano at USC, after a long career as an accompanist for violinist Jascha Heifetz and others, including Ruggiero Ricci, with whom he recorded an album of Paganini works and encores for Water Lily Acoustics and Conrad-Johnson in May 1988. I spoke with him on the phone a month after the sessions and asked him how long he had been playing...
Brooks Smith: I began when I was four, in Texas, and went straight to Juilliard after high school. I studied there with Josef and Rosina Lhevinne, to whom I am very grateful—they were great teachers.
Richard Lehnert: But you don't have a Texas accent.
Smith: I lost my Texas accent as soon as I could, because they made such fun of me in New York. And I played my first professional engagement there as well, while at Juilliard.
Lehnert: And you were Jascha Heifetz's accompanist as well.
Smith: Yes, for about 20 years, starting in '52; I was his exclusive pianist for a long time. We played all over the world, but he had to stop because of problems with his bow arm.
Lehnert: What was it like to work with Heifetz?
Smith: Wonderful, but he was very demanding. He was a very good pianist, which surprised me, and was very critical of my playing, as he was of his own—as he was of everyone's.
Lehnert: Is the music you play the same sort of music you enjoy listening to?
Smith: Yes. I enjoy the classics, particularly from the Romantic era.
Lehnert: What do you think of the music we recorded for this record?
Smith: I loved it, particularly the Reinecke. I'd never heard of it before I began to teach at USC, where I taught for 16 years. That and the Prokofiev are quite wonderful pieces of music.
Lehnert: How do you see your role as an accompanist, which some consider a thankless job?
Smith: I've never had anything against helping others put on a good performance, nor have I ever felt slighted in playing the role of an accompanist.
Lehnert: But surely you've been in situations where you've had to play music you don't at all like...?
Smith: Yes, that's true. But as an accompanist, it's part of your job to make it all sound good.
Lehnert: In preparing a piece of music, once you've gotten past the stage where you have to put all of your energy into just getting the notes right, what are you trying to achieve?
Smith: I think every piece of music has a definite message; my job is to get that message across, to express what the composer was trying to say. I try to get the idea across with my own feelings and the expression I put into it.
Lehnert: You used USC's Steinway at the recording sessions rather than the University's Bösendorfer. Does that decision represent your taste in pianos?
Smith: I prefer Steinways. I think they're the top of the heap. I've played on a good many Bösendorfers, but prefer the Steinway.
Lehnert: In what sort of hall do you like to play?
Smith: What sounds good on a recording is not necessarily good for a public performance. The hall at USC that we used for these sessions was good to record in, but in my opinion is too "live" for actual performances. The only time I ever recorded live with Heifetz was at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a large hall which seats about 3000. Though the recording was live, I think that was the best sound I've ever recorded. The hall reflected what we actually heard during the concert.
Lehnert: How do the recordings that we're making today sound to you?
Smith: Very good. Good balance, and it sounds like Gary and I were listening to each other, which is very good. And the sound of the flute was captured accurately—not an easy thing to do.
Lehnert: Have you noticed any differences between these sessions and others you've played in?
Smith: Most of the other recordings were in studios, and I like much better the sound we got from the hall, even if it wasn't ideal.
Lehnert: I know that John asked you if you would like to record a solo album, and you declined. Why was that?
Smith: It's been a very long time since I played solo; my forté is very much playing with others.
Lehnert: I'll vouch for that!
Footnote 2: Sadly, Brooks Smith passed away October 31, 2000 in Covina, CA after a brief illness. He was 88. It was a privilege to have been able to work with Mr. Smith on this, Stereophile's first recording project.—John Atkinson