If you ever thought you were hearing voices in a Baroque melody or that the solo instrument in a given sonata was trying to explain something—to ask if you'd considered it this way and that, or given adequate consideration to the other — then you have an idea what Cleveland Orchestra principal flutist Joshua Smith has been thinking lately. "Part of the essence of Baroque style is that all these composers were so well versed in the concept of rhetoric and delivering speech and emotion, and how integrated the music is to speech," he says. "You start playing with an awareness of that, and of the small patterns that emerge, especially repeated patterns."
You can hear this awareness in Smith's most recent recording, J.S. Bach Flute Sonatas, with harpsichordist Jory Vinikour, whom Smith met when Vinikour played a house concert in the Shaker Heights home of noted harpsichord maker Philip Cucchiara. The lively movements unfold as if two people were arguing a point at a party. The slow ones sound like careful consideration of something dear. The flute lines in particular come across like sentences, the speaker putting emphasis on the important parts.
"When you start to break the melody down, rather than thinking of long architectural lines as you might with Romantic music, you break them to smaller phrases," says Smith. "I think it has something to do with rhythm. It's built into the way the music is composed. Rhythm has a lot to do with harmonic structure. Once you start looking at it and analyzing how all that fits together — I find myself thinking about it as a kind of monologue."
Smith is effective at finding nuances to define styles across the centuries. He curated and performed concerts of French Impressionist music at the Cleveland Museum of Art last year to complement the Monet in Normandy exhibit. Along with harpist Yolanda Kondonassis and violist Cynthia Phelps, he was nominated for a 2010 Grammy for a performance of the 20th-century Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu's "And then I knew 'twas Wind," from the 2008 CD Air, on the Telarc label.
He's anticipating another piece that will explore connections between speech and music in a contemporary way. The Cleveland Orchestra has commissioned young German composer Jorg Widmann to write a concerto for Smith, which will premiere in October 2011. Smith says it's likely to be based on the character of Ophelia from Hamlet, with the flute as protagonist, perhaps representing her psychological state.
But this week, for a faculty recital at the Cleveland Institute of Music (where he heads the flute department), he goes back to Baroque — with emphasis on the relationship between speech and music. For a program he's calling "Sweet Beauty Hath No Name," he'll play Georg Philipp Telemann's solo flute fantasias. Actor Laura Perrotta — who's done everything from Shakespeare to Chekhov and, most recently, Charles Dickens at Great Lakes Theater Festival — will recite Shakespeare sonnets between the musical works.
Telemann may have been more in tune with the rhythms of argument than many of his contemporaries. Because his family didn't approve of his pursuing a composing career, they discouraged his musical ambition. He entered Leipzig University at age 20 to study law, but that didn't stick. Within a year, he was director of the local opera house and cantor for a local church. He wrote his solo fantasies for flute 30 years later, alphabetically exploring major and minor keys through the 12 works, which have a distinctive pedagogical bent.
"Playing the Telemann fantasies is an incredible example of what I'm talking about," says Smith. "Each of them is a microcosm of nature, mood and emotion. I think he was conscious of bringing natural cyclical elements into it. I'm not sure if we're talking 12 months or hours, but there is a life cycle built into the music. I find something new every time I pick them up."