William Schmidt seemed to bring joyful music everywhere he went and the fact that he and his wife, Casiana, most recently were living in Sarasota has meant that our musical arts organizations have benefited from the Schmidt touch. Take the Sarasota Opera. The name of the building may be the Sarasota Opera House, but the auditorium inside is named The William E. Schmidt Theater.
This concept of naming parts of famous places after people who’ve lovingly given their money, time or art is nothing new. Carnegie Hall, which still bears the name of Andrew Carnegie (even if they do pronounce it differently in New York City), sports a different name for the actual auditorium — the big one, inside, that seats about 2,800 people and has the smiling ghosts of every great musician of more than a century. It’s called The Isaac Stern Auditorium. And Carnegie’s stage (the real one, not the deli), has been named after Ronald O. Perelman. Even the Metropolitan Opera House has Ezio Pinza Water Fountains.
But there was much more to Bill Schmidt than his name. A business man who loved to fly, he adored music. And, along with the numerous contributions he made as a musical philanthropist in various parts of the country, he also founded the Schmidt Vocal Competition, which awards monetary and scholarship prizes to talented high school students who, after singing for a panel of illustrious judges, are not only awarded money, they’re also rewarded with the opportunity to be heard by famous conservatory and university voice teachers who “recruit” them to study at their distinguished institutions.
It was the Bill Schmidt touch. A gentle and loving touch that went far beyond the financial aspects of these awards and made sure these young students were followed and nurtured and properly trained in their craft. That’s something rare in the field of musical competitions. But then, Bill Schmidt was a rare man.
Bill passed away a few weeks ago but, except for the deep vacuum he left for his family and friends, his spirit of giving was so strong, he’s still very much alive in the lives of those he touched.
That spirit was positively glowing this past weekend when his widow, Casiana Schmidt, brought Bill’s beloved American Spiritual Ensemble to Sarasota to blow out the walls of the William E. Schmidt Auditorium at the Sarasota Opera.
This group, made of big, beautifully voiced professional opera singers from all over the continent, had only about 20 people on stage but the sound they made filled the heavens. Returning here after four years of making numerous recordings and touring large and small cities around Europe and the United States, The American Spiritual Ensemble proved they’re, indeed, filled with The Spirit. Under the excellent direction of Dr. Everett McCorvey — Director of the Opera Theater at the University of Kentucky and, most recently named Artistic Director of the eminent National Chorale in New York City — these singers specialize in the art of the Negro Spiritual. This is not gospel music. It’s the historic, emotional, beautiful, traditional music of African-Americans in arrangements that, basically, knock your socks off.
Starting at the rear of the Schmidt Auditorium and making their way down the aisles to the stage, they sang Moses Hogan’s “Down to the River to Pray” and the bass drone of “Hear My Prayer,” sending chills down spines from wall to wall. The varied but somewhat sedate (it was, after all, a Memorial Concert) program featured soloists from within the group whose individual voices gave us more than an inkling of why this ensemble is so rich in musicianship, sound and color.
Among the standouts was countertenor Matthew Truss, whose rich, full-bodied soprano voice is among the finest I’ve heard of the current crop of singers in this particular vocal category. This is no thin-blooded, falsetto-of-a-singer. His top register has the bloom of a true spinto soprano, something rarely (if ever) heard in a countertenor. All I could think was, Wow.
Soprano Rebecca Farley, a young winner of the Schmidt Competition who was making her first appearance with the Ensemble, made a lovely contribution to the soprano section as both a soloist and chorus member, with an easy, even, light lyric sound. Karen Slack, a dramatic soprano with a personality to match, blew us out of the water as the soloist in “You Must Have that True Religion,” and Kevin Thompson, whose deep bass (“Ol’ Man River”) is so resonant he becomes a whole bass section by himself, brought the audience to its feet.
There were short but sweet speeches by Richard Russell, Stephanie Sundine and Melissa Burtless, representing Sarasota Opera, as well as McCorvey and Casiana Schmidt. Each showed a different aspect of Bill Schmidt’s life and love. But it was the music that spoke the loudest and, this self-effacing gentleman with the glittering eyes, must have been kvelling from his front row seat in Heaven.