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September 8, 2010

Feel-good story: 95-year-old amateur composer hears his work for first time

Here's a little something to brighten the day and maybe just warm the heart.

Robert “Dick” Smith, a 95-year-old, longtime resident of the Oak Crest retirement community in Parkville, Md., is an amateur composer whose love of music was triggered by an encounter with none other than Rachmaninoff.

As a teen during the Depression, Smith held four jobs, one of them as usher at Washington's Constitution Hall. It was there, in 1931, that he got to hear a Rachmaninoff recital that included, among the encores, the enormously popular Prelude in C-sharp minor. That piece, in particular, got Smith's creative ideas flowing.

Without musical training, he had to keep a sizable piano composition in his head for many years, but, eventually, with the help of his grandson's piano teacher, was able to get it put down on paper. He gave the piece it a title in 1998 -- "Life: An Impromptu" -- and, just last week, finally got to hear it played by a professional pianist (Elizabeth Borowsky) before an audience of friends and neighbors at Oak Crest. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop sent congratulations on the occasion, thanking Smith "for sharing your love of music in such a meaningful way.”

Not surprisingly, "Life: An Impromptu" reveals quite a romantic streak stylistically. I imagine Rachmaninoff would have approved. Here's a video of the premiere (and snaps to Oak Crest for making it available; a YouTube-savvy retirement community -- how cool is that?):

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:56 PM | | Comments (5)


Oh that really is a great story. Kudos to Alsop for sending her congrats to Mr. Smith, also. I can't imagine what this meant to him!

Thank you for writing this beautiful and inspiring story. I am sad to see there is only one comment to this story and 41 comments to Jackie Evancho's story.

I have been deeply involved in promoting classical music for many years, and am grateful you for bringing this great story to the public attention. I attended this concert and learned that Mr. Dick Smith approached many pianists over the years, they regretfully pegged the work as chachka. I learned that Ms. Elizabeth Borowsky not only respectfully agreed to premiere the work, but edited it for this performance. To have it performed by such a young and accomplished pianist was an incredible honor for Mr. Smith, and such a wonderful example of inter-generational cooperation.

After hearing just the tail end of this story on our local NPR station today, I found myself searching the Internet, hoping to find Ms. Borowsky and Mr. Smith had collectively turned this into a recording for purchase. Alas, that does not appear to be so now...but can we hope? Some dreams really do come true, even if it takes a lifetime.

I had the pleasure to hear Mr. Smith play on his 95th birthday last weekend. It was so beautiful. The passion he has when playing his music is so moving.
Thank you so much for the concert Mr. Smith. Opportunities like that doesn't come very often. Happy Birthday!

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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