Obituaries

Rolf Smedvig, 62; virtuoso trumpeter who cofounded renowned brass quintet

Mr. Smedvig was a former principal trumpeter of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Ted Dully/Globe Staff/file 1980
Mr. Smedvig was a former principal trumpeter of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

To hear Rolf Smedvig tell it, he wasn’t terribly nervous in 1972 when he auditioned at 19 and became the youngest musician in the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

A trumpet prodigy, he had studied at Tanglewood and Boston University and “had nothing to lose — I just walked down the street from school and played,” he told the Globe several years later. “I got a kick out of playing with all those great trumpeters I had heard about all my life.”

In 1979, the jump to principal trumpet was more arduous. The auditioning process played out over about a year, with the first round taking place just eight days after he returned from touring China. “I tried practicing just with the mouthpiece on the plane coming back,” he recalled in 1980. “If you miss a day practicing, it always shows up – not the next day, but a little bit later.”

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When no clear choice emerged, the auditions proceeded to a second round and a third: “The last note I played at the last audition, I barely got it out!” He prevailed to be appointed principal trumpet, but less than a year later signed with Columbia Artists Management and left the BSO at the end of the 1980-81 season to focus on solo work, chamber music, conducting, and playing with a brass quintet.

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Mr. Smedvig, a virtuoso classical trumpeter who was considered one of the finest exponents of the instrument in the world, died of a heart attack April 27 in his West Stockbridge home. He was 62.

Praised for his pyrotechnic agility and warm, velvety tone, Mr. Smedvig often performed as a soloist with orchestras around the world. He helped found Empire Brass in 1972, two years after conductor Michael Tilson Thomas introduced the quintet’s five founding members to each other at Tanglewood. They chose the name when three of them were playing in New York City and began considering themselves an ensemble.

With two trumpets, a French horn, a trombone, and a tuba, Empire Brass toured widely, releasing dozens of recordings and appearing on television shows as varied as “Today” and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” The quintet’s repertoire extends from the Renaissance to the Jazz Age.

In 1976, it became the first brass ensemble to win a Walter W. Naumburg Foundation award, in part for a performance of “Fantasia Concertante,” a commission by composer William Thomas McKinley of Reading, who died in February.

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Mr. Smedvig played first trumpet in the quintet and was its sole remaining original member. Empire Brass will continue with a new trumpeter joining the quintet, Mr. Smedvig’s manager, Mark Z. Alpert, told The New York Times.

Rolf Thorstein Smedvig was born in Seattle on Sept. 23, 1952, to parents of Icelandic and Norwegian heritage. His mother, Kristin, was a violinist with the Seattle Symphony, and his father, Egil, was a music teacher and composer.

Mr. Smedvig first performed as a soloist with the Seattle Symphony at 13. In 1971, when Mr. Smedvig was studying at Tanglewood, Leonard Bernstein chose him to be the trumpet soloist in the world premiere of Bernstein’s “Mass,’’ composed for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.

In early 1980, not long after Mr. Smedvig was appointed principal trumpet of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Globe music critic Richard Dyer reviewed a performance of Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” at Symphony Hall. “Rolf Smedvig’s bell-toned trumpet solos showed why nobody else deserves his new job as much as he does,” Dyer wrote.

A decade after leaving the BSO, Mr. Smedvig drew public criticism in 1991 for comments he made about female brass players while teaching a master class at Boston University.

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He responded to a performance by three women of Poulenc’s Sonata for Horn, Trumpet, and Trombone by saying: “I’ve got this thing about women and brass playing. . . . If you want to play brass instruments, you have to change your character.”

Mr. Smedvig was praised for his pyrotechnic agility and warm, velvety tone.

The master classes were routinely taped and the Globe reviewed a transcript. “Boys, I mean, we grow up at the age of 5, you know, and we’re playing in the dirt and you guys are playing with dolls,” Mr. Smedvig said. “I’m sorry to say that, but . . . some women brass players have a really tough time leaving those womanly traits behind and getting more aggressive.”

He added: “So basically, my suggestion . . . and this is something I think can help everyone, is to try to widen your emotional response to the music.”

The remarks caused a furor, partly because women historically have been discouraged from playing brass instruments, and symphony orchestra brass sections remain largely male bastions.

The three women complained after the class, and BU organized a forum on female brass-playing and sexism, at which Mr. Smedvig spoke. He apologized, saying “I made a mistake,” and added that he did not intend his remarks to apply to all female brass players.

In a phone interview after the forum, Mr. Smedvig told the Globe that “there is a difference between men and women when they play brass instruments, partly because of endurance reasons, and partly because of the way men and women are brought up from childhood, the things that are ingrained in them.”

Mr. Smedvig, who had been a guest conductor of the Tonhalle-Orchestra Zurich and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, recorded solo albums with works by Bach, Telemann, Haydn, and Mozart. His Empire Brass recordings included “Baroque Brass,” “An Empire Brass Christmas,” and “American Brass Band Journal.”

His first marriage, to Caroline Hessberg, who is known as Kim, ended in divorce. She is now married to the singer-songwriter James Taylor.

Mr. Smedvig leaves his second wife, the former Kelly Holub, whom he married in 1992; four children from his second marriage: a son, Soren, and three daughters, Soffia, Aurora, and Annika; and two sisters, Jodene and Siri.

In the 1980 Globe interview, Mr. Smedvig said he could not remember a time when he was not playing trumpet. His parents brought home different instruments, but he insisted on the trumpet.

There was a photo of him playing at 4, along with a home tape recording. “It isn’t great, but it isn’t bad, either,” he told the Globe. “And my embouchure looks terrific in that picture.”

Material from The New York Times was used in this report.