So ingratiating, stylish and historically iconic is the flute that it's hard to imagine why the instrument claims the spotlight so infrequently: Joshua Smith's flute concert Tuesday is a once-every-two-seasons occasion for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society.
Educated at the Curtis Institute and ensconced in the Cleveland Orchestra's principal flute position for 21 years (he was hired at age 20), Smith now appears to be pursuing a solo career: He's recording Bach for the Delos label and is looking more like a movie star than a classical musician in his latest publicity photos.
Yet Smith demurs. "I don't see it as a real possibility," he said by phone from Cleveland. "Violinists and pianists have much better chances at solo careers. They have Beethoven and Brahms sonatas and all of this wonderful stuff that people want to hear. But with the flute, you can only build so many recital tours with the repertoire that we have."
Smith is proud of the program he will play with pianist Christina Dahl Tuesday at the American Philosophical Society. Titled "Day and Night, I Call Only Love," its succession of Schubert, Schumann, Reinecke, and Carter has literary underpinnings related to unrequited love.
The concept's connection is obvious with Introduction and Variations on Trockne Blümen drawn from Schubert's song cycle Die Schöne Mullerin and the paragon of romantic rejection that is its protagonist. Not so obvious is Scrivo in vento by arch-modernist Carter. But it's based on a Petrarch poem about unrequited love, and in any case, says Smith, it's "a manic piece . . . introspective, doubtful, wandering and with complete outbursts of chest-beating. It's like listening to somebody's crazy thoughts . . . ."
"I'm proud of it," he says of the program, suggesting he's more surprised than are his musical onlookers.
Flutists can't help but be spoiled by the symphonic repertoire. Jeffrey Khaner, longtime Philadelphia Orchestra principal flutist, has intermittently made solo recordings and played recitals, but says "it would be very difficult to have a life as a musician without playing with the orchestra. The greatest music of all time - Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky - we would never be able to play if we weren't in an orchestra. The flute solo repertoire is lovely . . . but string instruments can be more attractive to composers. The depth of sound can be much greater."
Even flutist Emmanuel Pahud returned to the Berlin Philharmonic in 2002 after a two-season hiatus as a solo performer and high-profile recording artist for EMI.
Flutists with any visibility commission new works. Khaner got one of the last major pieces out of the aging Ned Rorem. Though roundly considered to be as brilliant as they come, flutist Mimi Stillman has resisted going the orchestral route, instead founded her own ensemble, Dolce Suono, which has commissioned works from major composers such as Steve Mackey. As a soloist, Stillman has a forward-looking concerto repertoire of works by David Finko and David Amram.
Smith grew up in Albuquerque, N.M., playing show tunes on his flute; he developed quickly at Curtis (studying under Khaner and others) and was barely out of his teens when he landed his position with the Cleveland Orchestra, considered one of the great destination orchestras in the country. As part of that ensemble, he has played new works by the exciting Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho as well as the Dvorak opera Rusalka at the Salzburg Festival under current music director Franz Welser-Möst.
Like Stillman, though, Smith practices a certain amount of enterprise to keep his life from falling into the treadmill of weekly symphonic concerts. He has premiered new works by Jörg Widmann, but, like an increasing number of classical musicians, has taken to playing in clubs. There's no Cleveland counterpart to Manhattan's Poisson Rouge, but there is a certain ex-polka bar known as the Happy Dog.
"It's a place where you can have a beer and a really good hot dog with a check list of 50 or 60 possible toppings, from gourmet kimchi to Fruit Loops," he says. "We thought we should do popular or crossover repertoire, but decided that wouldn't be honest and stuck to what we do well - Beethoven, Janacek, Tchaikovsky's Souvenier de Florence. The first night, we had people lining up around the block."
That's what it takes to thrive artistically in a city that has known decades of economic distress and that is often unfriendly to the arts. Unlike some Cleveland Orchestra members, Smith didn't settle in leafy Shaker Heights, but lives in a 1894 inner-city mansion, designed by the architect Charles Schweinfurth, with his partner and a pair of Dobermans - always useful for deterring crime. "That was the idea," he says, dryly.
The Cleveland urban-artist mentality appeals to him: "There's an amazing underground culture. If you know how to look for stuff and find it, there's a lot going on that's fresh and hip. I like the grittiness of it and the feeling of reality. It feels like a real city, and it doesn't feel as though the culture is manufactured for show. It's a well-edited group of events, and not regularly established events but things that happen once and never again, and have this kind of flash energy."
But when the likes of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society offers him a more traditional platform such as his Tuesday recital, he's ready. In fact, concert performances of him playing many of the standard flute classics, as well as transcriptions of Faure's Violin Sonata No. 1, can be downloaded from www.powellflutes.com/recording-studio/artists/joshua-smith. Self-made careers over the Internet are becoming increasingly difficult amid the endless traffic. But now, as in generations past, nothing can really happen unless the art has been created for the world to discover.
"You have to wade through so much, good and bad, before you can zero in on the stuff that's really special," Smith says. "How do you make yourself stand out? I don't worry about it that much."