Love of music, hockey runs in Ben Smith’s family
Ben Smith’s brother, James Austin Smith (a Northwestern grad), playing a piece written by their father, Larry Alan Smith. The piece is called “Three Angularities.”
There always was music in the car. Lots of Frank Sinatra, Billy Joel and James Taylor, singers who will always remind Blackhawks forward Ben Smith of being with his father, Larry Alan Smith, as they made lengthy drives around New England, sometimes five times a week, so Ben could play and practice hockey with elite teams.
And, somewhat surprisingly until you know the rest of this story, the teenager came to love those classic voices — Sinatra and Joel intoning hymns to New York, Taylor singing of the snowy Massachusetts turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston in “Sweet Baby James” — as much as his father did.
So it was fitting there was classical music, or perhaps the germ of it, on the hockey trip they made together last June.
It is what composer Larry Alan Smith remembers most vividly about the trip across Washington Street atop the open-deck bus taking Ben and members of his family on the parade to the Hawks’ Stanley Cup victory rally in Grant Park.
“I had a funny reaction, as a composer,” Larry said. “Every time there was an intersection, the cheering would resound off the walls. And it was a sound I had never heard and would never forget.
“I have audio of it, and I have thought about how I can use it in a piece.”
That his father would have such a reaction to the festivities does not surprise Ben Smith. The gritty, corner-mucking winger is, after all, capable of finding more than one meaning if someone tells him, “You are playing flat.”
Ben, 25, is an erstwhile trombonist and classical guitarist, and sang bass in chorus and chamber choir during his high school years at Westminster School. He remains a member in good standing of the Smith brothers band (with parents accompanying) when it strikes up at family Christmas gatherings in Avon, Conn., which also generally include a family hockey game on the Westminster rink.
And, after all, what does a musician do more than listen?
“My father can find inspiration in the smallest things,” Ben said after a practice last week. “His musical ear and talent run so deep that he could be inspired by any sound or setting we encounter. I’m sure he’s used the inspiration from some of those trips in music he has composed.”
Larry, who studied composition and counterpoint with the legendary French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger in Paris, has written a wide variety of pieces in the American symphonists’ tradition, a compositional style practiced by the likes of Aaron Copland, Roy Harris and William Schuman. He composed a solo piece, “Three Angularities,” for his oldest son, James Austin Smith, a professional oboist.
On his website, Larry cites excepts of the late Chicago critic Claudia Cassidy’s review of the world premiere of his one-act opera, “Aria da Capo. “She called it “remarkable opera theater” and the work of a “true talent.”
His wife, Marguerita Oundjian Smith, is a pianist, chamber musician, piano teacher and accompanist. James, oldest of their four sons, is an acclaimed performer and a teacher at SUNY-Purchase. All four Smith boys took music lessons, played one or two instruments and sang.
“By watching my parents’ and my brothers’ passion for music, I was able to find my own passion and pursue it,” Ben said.
He rarely picks up the guitar now and sings only in his family’s presence. But when he felt the intense focus on hockey at Boston College was beginning to make him one-dimensional, Ben restarted guitar lessons his junior year and took a semester of voice lessons as he finished a bachelor’s degree in history. He is a musical omnivore, favoring country music of late, an unexpected link to his (shallow) North Carolina roots.
“Ben has a great ear, sings very well in tune and has great rhythm,” James said. “Every so often, you can catch Ben and (youngest brother) Will singing Taylor Swift as a duo.”
This is a family where hockey and music long have intersected, in ways that recall six degrees of separation as well as six-part harmony.
James played a private recital over the winter at a Lake Shore Drive residence in a building owned by the Wirtz family.
Ben’s uncle Peter Oundjian is the conductor of a leading orchestra, the Toronto Symphony, in hockey’s (and his) motherland. Oundjian was also an eminent violinist until a hand problem (upper-body injury?) led him to concentrate on conducting.
Surface relationship: Another uncle, Haig Oundjian, is a two-time British Olympian in singles figure skating (7th in 1972) who won the bronze medal at the 1971 European Championships.
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