Reginald Smith Jr. remembers his first time as the baritone soloist in George Frideric Handel’s Messiah in vivid detail.
It was Dec. 14, 2007, a historic date in Lexington music as it was Maestro George Zack’s final time conducting the work, near the end of his 38-year career as the music director of the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra.
“I remember the Worthy is the Lamb and the Amen, and how long Maestro Zack held it,” Smith recalls. “We could see the emotion on his face, as if it was the ‘amen’ of his career with the Philharmonic.”
Smith was an interesting subplot of the occasion: a 19-year-old University of Kentucky freshman who managed to snag one of the coveted solo slots in the orchestra’s annual Messiah performance.
And it was the start of another chapter in Lexington music history: Smith’s.
Smith returns to Lexington this weekend as the baritone soloist in Christ Church Cathedral’s Messiah, as a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and a rising star in the music world. He is squeezing this Messiah in between rehearsals and performances with the Houston Symphony Pops and upcoming performances of Messiah with the National Symphony Orchestra.
“Last year was the first time we had the chance to work with Reggie, and it is so evident he is a rising star,” says Christ Church canon musician Erich Balling, who conducts the Messiah performance with the Cathedral Choir and Lexington Baroque Ensemble. “His work ethic is out of this world.
“In our Messiah we have always tried to have a good balance between local soloists and soloists from around the world. Reggie is a great combination of that.”
Smith came to UK from a modest background in Atlanta on a full scholarship from Alltech. He quickly became a star of the voice program landing prominent roles in UK Opera productions which were usually claimed by graduate students.
Following graduation, he landed a spot in the Houston Grand Opera’s young artist development program, and he remains based in the Texas metropolis.
When he was named one of the five winners at the Met Auditions last spring, he became only the second Met winner from UK. The other, Gregory Turay in 1995, will be singing in another Lexington Messiah performance by the Lexington Singers on Dec. 12 at the Singletary Center for the Arts.
Smith had one Lexington appearance after his Met win, at which he sang a small concert and received the key to the city from Lexington mayor Jim Gray.
“It’s always wonderful to come back to my old Kentucky home,” Smith says, while driving back to Houston from a Thanksgiving in Atlanta. “I talk about Kentucky so much, people think I’m from Kentucky. But I say, ‘Nah. I’m from Atlanta.’”
Friday will be Smith’s first public performance appearance since the Met win, though he says he wants the focus to be on the event and notes his fellow soloists, which include Grammy Award-winning tenor Richard Clement.
“It’s very moving to sing it there in the church, and that they use younger children,” Smith says. “At 7 or 8 years old, I couldn’t sing Messiah.”
In addition to Smith, Balling notes this Messiah will be a homecoming for soprano soloist Emily Albrink, who was once in the cathedral choir as a child and has gone on to an international career. She is now based in Louisville, where she is on the voice faculty at the University of Louisville.
Rounding out the soloists is British countertenor Ryland Angel.
It will be a new mix of voices for the event, save for Smith, who Balling says should present new dimensions in his performance this year.
“I’m looking forward to seeing what a year’s seasoning has done for him,” Balling says.
And Smith is aware that the title of Met Auditions winner carries a certain responsibility.
“Winning the Met is a great stepping-stone,” Smith says. “But it also means you have to do more work because people expect more of you. And that’s good, because you can’t rest on your laurels.’
If You Go
What: Christ Church Cathedral presentation of George Frideric Handel’s oratorio, conducted by Erich Balling with the Cathedral Choir and Lexington Baroque Ensemble.
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 4
Where: Christ Church Cathedral, 166 Market St.
Call: 859-254-4497, Ext. 108