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Lawrence Leighton Smith's next chapter as 'Larry'
When: 3 -4:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Colorado Springs Conservatory, 415 S. Sahwatch St.
Admission: $25, includes a light snack; 577-4556.
The maestro bowed before the crowd of about 70 people gathered at the Colorado Springs Conservatory to hear him deconstruct Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.
His tails were in his closet, gathering dust. Instead, he wore a burgundy turtleneck under a black blazer. He also donned his trademark wire-rim glasses, his white hair as wild as ever.
“I used to be Lawrence Leighton Smith,” he told the crowd. “Now, I’m just Larry.”
Back in the days when he was Lawrence Leighton Smith, he wielded the baton as the music director for the Colorado Springs Philharmonic. A couple of years after he announced his retirement in 2009, he was diagnosed with Binswanger’s Disease, a not-so distant cousin of Alzheimer’s, which also involves a growing dementia.
At the time, Smith decided to check out of life. He moved to a nursing home. He spent a lot of time in bed.
“It was a rough patch,” he said. “I didn’t take care of myself. I guess I was depressed.”
Then something happened. Part of it, he said, was that his wife kicked him in the butt and told him he had to get to living again.
“I realized retirement sucks,” he said. “I wanted to do something, and I wanted to give back.”
So he put on his jacket and his red bow tie and knocked on the door of the Colorado Springs Conservatory, an arts intensive school for kids and adults.
“I thought he’d stopped by on the way out for dinner,” says Conservatory executive director Linda Weise.
Without any jokes or irony, Smith told Weise: “Professor, I’m looking for a job.”
What made him seek out a job at the Conservatory?
“I was smashed,” he said with his usual deadpan. “No, don’t put that down. Well, put down whatever you want. But I’ve known Linda for 15 or 20 years and she’s doing something quite different and quite extraordinary here.”
Weise was monumentally flattered, and her mind raced. What do you do with this kind of community treasure? She sat down with Smith and they worked out a plan for “Sundays With Larry,” a musical lecture infused with Smith’s infectious enthusiasm for classical music.
“It’s a guided tour of symphonic surgery,” he said. “I wanted to do something that wasn’t too technical, that’s translatable even without having seen the score or heard this glorious piece.”
During his first session in January, he performed surgery on Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” beginning by jumping to the piano and reminding us, “You already know it.”
“Da, da, da, dum! Da, da, da dum!”
Through his own playing and with a symphonic recording, he took the group through the piece, identifying the development of the original themes, the emergence of new ones, the broad strokes and the subtleties.
Smith, 75, displayed a great ease with the crowd, developed over a half-century long career. He was by turns funny, dramatic and insightful. But sometimes his piano playing stumbled.
“That’s not the illness,” he said afterward. “I’ve always made mistakes on the piano.”
He just laughed at his slips and moved on.
“You have to be patient (with yourself),” he said. “I’ve realized that I may not always be able to do things the way I used to, but there are still things I can do.”
In fact, he teaches other classes at the Conservatory, does private lessons and still plays tennis.
And as the crowd gave a standing ovation at the end of his presentation, it was clear that Larry may have as rich a career as Lawrence did.