Rolf Smedvig performed as a soloist with the Seattle Symphony at age 13; at 18, he was picked by Leonard Bernstein to be the trumpet soloist in the world premiere of his “Mass.”

Share story

Seattle native Rolf Smedvig, a virtuoso classical trumpeter who helped found the Empire Brass, a renowned quintet whose repertory extends from the Renaissance to the Jazz Age, died Monday at home in West Stockbridge, Mass. He was 62.

The cause was a heart attack, said his manager, Mark Alpert.

Mr. Smedvig, a former principal trumpeter of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was considered one of the finest exponents of the instrument in the world, praised for his pyrotechnic agility and warm, velvety tone. Besides performing with the quintet, he appeared often as a soloist with orchestras around the globe.

With four colleagues, he started the Empire Brass Quintet, as it was originally known, in the early 1970s. Comprising two trumpets, a French horn, a trombone and a tuba, it has toured widely, released dozens of recordings and appeared on television shows as varied as the “Today” show and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

In 1976, the Empire Brass became the first brass quintet to win a Naumburg Foundation award, a classical-music honor.

Mr. Smedvig, who played first trumpet in the group, was its sole remaining original member; its current incarnation includes Derek Lockhart, second trumpet; Victor Sungarian, French horn; Greg Spiridopoulos, trombone; and Kenneth Amis, tuba.

The Empire Brass will continue, Alpert said Friday, with Lockhart assuming the first trumpeter’s chair and Eric Berlin joining the ensemble as the second trumpeter.

Of Icelandic and Norwegian extraction, Rolf Thorstein Smedvig was born in Seattle on Sept. 23, 1952. His mother, Kristin, was a violinist with the Seattle Symphony for many years; his father, Egil, was a music teacher and composer. A prodigy on the trumpet, Rolf performed as a soloist with the Seattle Symphony at 13 and later studied at Boston University, where his teachers included eminent trumpeter Maurice André.

In 1971, while studying at Tanglewood, the Mr. Smedvig was chosen by Leonard Bernstein to be the trumpet soloist in the world premiere of his “Mass,” composed for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.

The next year, at 19, he was named assistant principal trumpeter of the Boston Symphony, one of the youngest musicians ever appointed there; he became its principal trumpeter in 1979. He left the orchestra in 1981 to focus on solo work, chamber music and conducting.

Mr. Smedvig incurred public criticism in 1991, when comments he made while teaching a master class at Boston University were deemed sexist by some participants. As The Boston Globe reported, after hearing three undergraduate women perform Poulenc’s sonata for horn, trumpet and trombone, he said: “Women have a really tough time playing brass instruments because your basic nature is not terribly aggressive.”

He continued: “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.”

The remarks caused a furor. (Women were historically discouraged from playing brass instruments, and the brass sections of symphony orchestras endure as largely male bastions.) Mr. Smedvig later apologized but appeared to undercut his apology when he added: “There is a design problem inherent in the basic personalities of women when it comes to brass instruments.”

His solo albums include works by Bach, Telemann, Haydn and Mozart. His recordings with the quintet include “Baroque Brass,” “An Empire Brass Christmas” and “American Brass Band Journal.”

He was a guest conductor of the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela and other ensembles.

Mr. Smedvig’s first marriage, to Caroline Elisabeth Hessberg, known as Kim, ended in divorce. (She is now married to singer-songwriter James Taylor.) His survivors include his second wife, the former Kelly Holub, whom he married in 1992; two sisters, Jodene Smedvig and Siri Smedvig; and four children from his second marriage: a son, Soren; and three daughters, Soffia, Aurora and the youngest, Annika, whom he began teaching to play the trumpet almost before she could walk.