The world lost one of its great musicians on 15 February 2018 when Kenneth George Smith, known as Ken or young Ken , died in Melbourne aged 88.
Ken was skilled in many aspects of music, particularly brass music and brass bands. He was a superb cornet/trumpet player; a stylish and clever arranger; a skilled and sensitive adjudicator; a world championship winning conductor; and a willing and intelligent educationalist.
As a cornet/trumpet player Ken was without peer in New Zealand history. Ken won the Cornet Championship of New Zealand in 1948,1949,and 1950 and for four years as a member of the Fairey Aviation Works Band was featured soloist and assistant to Norman Ashcroft the Principal Cornet. A few years ago the 4BarsRest website ( the most popular website in the world for brass players ) listed who they believed to be the 10 best cornet players in the world of all time.Ken was listed at Number 7 the only New Zealander to be mentioned. 4Bars Rest said of him:
" it is sometimes very difficult to describe the effect a person has when they come to a staid, sedate, sober country and hit it like a comet from outer space. The comet in question was a New Zealander by name Ken Smith ..
( He) was nothing short of sensational, with his style,tone and amazing technique literally placing him years ahead of any of his contemporaries."
Only the older generation will recognise many of the other names in the list but it is worth noting that Wynston Marsellis features below Ken.
He was guest soloist with the all conquering 1953 National band of New Zealand. At the time he was playing with the Fairey Aviation Works Band but when time allowed he would travel to wherever the National band was in the United Kingdom and play as a guest soloist. On occasions he also sat in the band to assist when a cornet player was ill.
There are some magnificent recordings available of Ken playing with piano accompaniment from Maurice Till and Johannes Giesen. His performance of Sonia on one of these recordings has always been inspirational for me. There is also a tutorial album called " The Voice of the Cornet " with Ken playing cornet and Harry Mortimer commentating.These all need to be digitised to preserve them for younger generations.
Ken was responsible in New Zealand for many first performances of major works for trumpet and orchestra, and trumpet and piano with Maurice Till, such including concertos by Haydn, Addison, the 2nd Bach Brandenburg, and the Sonata by Hindemith.
As a conductor it is fair to say that Ken did not enjoy competition for competitions sake but he often quoted the saying to the effect that the purpose of competition was to pace ourselves along the road to perfection. In this sense he was like his famous father KGL Smith who also had tremendous success as a conductor. Each of them had a different personality but both driven by a desire to achieve perfection in music.
In brass banding Ken conducted the St Kilda Band in New Zealand to win the New Zealand Championships in 1955. He was then and still is the youngest conductor to ever win the New Zealand "A" Grade.He won again in 1967 also with St Kilda. In 1985 Ken was the Musical Director of the National Band of New Zealand winning with the highest ever points in the Premier Division, the World Music Contest at Kerkrade in the Netherlands. In this respect he followed his father who had won likewise with the 1962 National Band of New Zealand.
In New Zealand Ken conducted the Dunedin Choral Society,the Operatic Society for 10 years, and the Dunedin Civic Orchestra in full orchestral and Chamber Music concerts, including the Mobil Song quest final won by Kiri Te Kanawa in 1966.
While living in Sydney he also conducted the Sydney Conservatorium of Music Symphonic Wind Ensemble.
As conductor of the Woolston Band of Christchurch New Zealand Ken won the test piece for 4 consecutive years, and the championship twice.
As an adjudicator Ken , on six occasions adjudicated the New Zealand Brass Band Championships, the youngest at 25 in 1958 to do so. He has also judged at major Eisteddfords in Australia.
Most importantly, though he is the only New Zealander to have adjudicated at the British Open Championship. He did so twice in 1994 , when the test piece was Cloud Catcher Fells by John McCabe and again in 1999 when the test piece was The Dove Descending by Phillip Wilby.
Over a lifetime Ken specialised in arranging for brass band with over 100 scores prepared. Many of the arrangements were featured by the 1985 National Band of New Zealand on its European tour, and conducted by Ken. As an indication of the quality of Ken's arrangements they include a chorale by Roselli, a cornet solo, Danse Napolitaine from Swan Lake, the Overture to the Opera Rodelinda by Handel and Quatre Etudes Tableaux by Rachmaninov.
In 1986/87 Ken was commissioned by the Sydney ( New South Wales ) Festival to arrange Peter Sculthorpe's "Child of Australia" for the celebration of Australia's Bi-Centenary on Australia Day.
In connection with his arrangements Ken quoted with approval the following words from Mile Davis the celebrated jazz trumpet virtuoso
" For me, music and life are all about style".
As a teacher Ken was in a league of his own. I was privileged while at University to have tuition from Ken for a year. Ken's lessons were better and more interesting than any lecture I had at University.
He was for a few years the Brass Band Association of New Zealand's Director of Education. He moved education in that space to a completely new zone. He was extremely passionate about education in the music area.
In later life he developed a series of Ensemble Studies. In a letter to me in 2008 he said :
" The programme is the work of a lifetime of finding a way to grow the young instrumentalist in ensemble playing skills and deep down I know such can bring very positive results, if used systematically, bringing essential knowledge as well."
In Ken's younger days the education system in New Zealand had some flaws. for some reason it would not accept him as an itinerant teacher of brass instruments. In one of the great responses of all time Ken went to Australia where he eventually became Chair of the Department of Brass and Percussion at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music
In 1998 Ken was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to music but in life he never received accolades to the level he deserved. May be ,and I hope it is so, one day the world will realise what he will continue to have to offer. He was undoubtedly a man ahead of his time.
Rest in peace Ken.