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In Memoriam, 5-10: Noel Smith
Putting the Music in Australian Ballet

By Suzanne (Musitz) Davidson
Copyright 2007 Suzanne (Musitz) Davidson

SYDNEY -- Noel William Frederick Smith, the Australian Ballet's inaugural music director, passed away in Sydney February 28 after a long illness, at the age of 78. He will be missed by his adoring wife, Rosemary, his children Nicole, Tania, and Garry (by his first wife Joan), his six granddaughters (his 'Princesses'), his grandson (his 'Cobber'), and all the dancers, singers and musicians whose lives he touched.

Noel Smith.

"He was immensely valuable," said Maina Gielgud, former artistic director of the Australian Ballet, "one of those rare conductors who understood classical ballet (he was married to a dancer), and whom one could count on not only to provide a tempo that was good for the ballet being performed, but also to adapt to the individual dancers' needs on any given day, without being cruel to the score at hand. Indeed his experience in the musical theater also stood him in good stead. So not only was he an excellent conductor for dancers, but he gave the music what it needed from a theatrical point of view, and could sense how to deal with an audience's mood. I was very lucky to have him as part of my team in those golden years."

Noel Smith graduated from the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music after a five year scholarship in the flute and studying conducting with Nikolai Malko and Eugene Goossens. Following a successful career as a flautist, he was appointed to the music staff of J.C. Williamson Theatres Ltd..

In 1959, he became music director of the Borovansky Ballet, where he met and married ballerina Rosemary Mildner. Her work in helping him understand a dancer's needs on stage resulted in Smith's superb ability to achieve the right balance between leading the orchestra and supporting the performers on stage.

Marilyn Jones, former principal artist and another former artistic director of the Australian Ballet, said: "I met Noel Smith in 1959, when I joined the Borovansky Ballet. He conducted for my very first ballerina role, which was Aurora in "The Sleeping Beauty." He was a wonderful and generous conductor, who understood each dancer's needs whilst never compromising the music.

"Through the years Noel and I had a private little joke. He would usually ask the principal dancers on the night of their performance if there was anything they requested; to me he would just say: 'I know, nice and slow' and I would laugh and reply 'Yes, please.'

"He was a gracious, kind and unpretentious man, a true blue, who will be greatly missed by his family, friends and colleagues."

Garth Welch, former principal artist of the Borovansky Ballet and the Australian Ballet, worked with Noel Smith in both companies, as well as in the musical "A Chorus Line." He remembered: "Noel was always a sympathetic conductor for performers. He had a sense of humor and an easy manner which endeared him to us all."

On November 2, 1962, at Her Majesty's Theatre, Sydney, Noel Smith conducted the inaugural performance of the Australian Ballet, the full-evening production of "Swan Lake." He remained with the company for its first four years, playing a vital role in its development, with Dame Peggy van Praagh and Sir Robert Helpmann.

In 1967 he was instrumental in the establishment of the Elizabethan Trust Orchestra (now the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra) and the Elizabethan Melbourne Orchestra (now Orchestra Victoria). He was then appointed director of music for J.C.Williamson Theatres Ltd., a post he held for 15 years, conducting almost 40 musicals and operettas.

During this time he made frequent guest appearances with the Australian Ballet and toured as principal conductor, working with artists such as Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev.

In 1980-81 he was conductor for the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Returning to the Australian Ballet, he held the post of music director from 1985 to 1997, when he became the company's music administrator and conductor. Vicky Attard, former principal artist of the Australian Ballet, has fond memories: "Noel and my professional association started in 1991, when he conducted one of my early performances in 'Swan Lake.' After that, to my delight, he conducted all the major classics in which I danced. His conducting was always consistent, and he listened to what we had to say. Noel was a warm and caring person, whose door was always open. I will continue to remember him very fondly."

During this period Noel Smith also agreed to conduct for the Dancers Company, a group which had been formed in 1980 by Jones, at the time artistic director of the Australian Ballet. Comprising a corps de ballet of final year Australian Ballet School students, and headed up by principal artists and soloists from the main company, the Dancers Company took professional productions to regional centres in New South Wales and Victoria, where the Australian Ballet couldn't go because of time constraints and a lack of sufficiently large theatres. Its orchestra was conducted by Noel Smith, whose experience, encouragement and knowledgeable care helped many a young dancer give of their best.

Steven Heathcote, the veteran Australian Ballet principal artist, has vivid memories of one of those tours: "As a young dancer preparing for principal roles early in my career, it was always comforting to know that I had Noel as the conduit between me and the orchestra. His experience, calm nature and ability to put you at ease made life so much easier on stage. The world of dance and music has lost a great man full of humility and talent, and my heart goes out to Rosemary, an amazing woman who stood by him through thick and thin."

Noel Smith, who had given the most performances by any conductor at the Sydney Opera House by the end of his career, retired from the Australian Ballet at the end of 1997.

In his distinguished career Noel Smith conducted many international orchestras, including the Moscow Symphony, Montreal Symphony, Honolulu Symphony, Mexico Symphony, Rio de Janeiro Symphony, Seattle Symphony, Buenos Aires Philharmonic, Tokyo Philharmonic, and the China Broadcasting Orchestra. He also conducted in some of the world's leading theaters, including the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Maryinsky, Kennedy Center, New York City Center, Tokyo's NHK Hall and Moscow's Stanislavsky Theatre.

His contribution was finally recognized when he was included in the 2006 Queen's Honours List.

Easy-going, self-deprecating, with a dry sense of humour and a benevolent attitude to the world at large, Noel Smith was one of the true greats of Australian theater. His work lives on through the many performances recorded by the Australian Ballet throughout his long association with the company and through the Australian Broadcasting Corporation simulcasts of the company's performances.

"Noel Smith conducted for some of the most important performances in the company's history, " said David McAllister, current artistic director of the Australian Ballet. "Personally I was always very happy to look down from the stage and see Noel's smiling face looking up at me. He had a great love of life, his family and his music, and he will be sadly missed."

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