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Allen Gimbel
American Record Guide, May 2009

Californian Leland Smith (b. 1925) studied, as a young man, with Milhaud (at Mills College) and Sessions (at Berkeley), and later, perhaps most significantly for his career, with computer guru John Chowning at Stanford; but he didn’t compose much after 1970, when he began devoting his attention entirely to the development of computer software for music notation. The result was the music typography system SCORE, which set the standard for music publication at the time (it has, of course, since been superseded but retains its influence). Most of Mr Smith’s career was spent teaching at Stanford. This collection is a souvenir of his compositional work—almost all from the early 50s—written for colleagues, students, and friends.

There are eight pieces here for violin, viola, and/or piano. For violin and piano, there is a concise neoclassical Sonatina (1952–53), and a Concert Piece from 1951, sometimes soulful, otherwise disjunct and sketchy.

For viola (also played by Ms Darling), there is a solo Suite (1948), broadly lyrical in the mainstream neoclassical style of the time, and a tightly-wound three-movement Sonata with piano from 1953.

For solo piano, we have four serial one page Etudes in the style of Schoenberg (1952), a spiky Intermezzo and Capriccio (1952) certainly influenced by Sessions, six conventionally quasi-Webernian Bagatelles (1964) (for the record, “the first musical score to be typeset entirely on a computer”), and the most substantial work on the program, a knotty 15-minute Piano Sonata from 1954, also out of Sessions’s notebook.

Performances are skillful and obviously authoritative. Notes by both the composer and Carson Cooman.

Jens F. Laurson
Fanfare, May 2009

Smith’s music is both interesting and listenable, but not in the least worthy of condescension. In fact, this is modern music, frequently spiky and abrupt, that continuously holds your attention or regains it when you get distracted. It offers a string of pleasant surprises to the listener who is willing and eager to give contemporary classical music the benefit of the doubt, but is let down all too often. Brian Ferneyhough-lovers will find it kitsch; those who think Bartók is modern, random noise.

That is, in short, the basis from which you might want to judge my most subjective term “listenable”: not embarrassed by the Romantic strain that creeps into American modernist works, nor afraid of modernism itself. You probably know who you are, and you know whether you might be at least interested in a disc from this series. If you are not already intrigued by the idea of an American student of Olivier Messiaen’s, Roger Session’s, and Darius Milhaud’s, chances are that asking you to consider Smith’s Sonatina for Violin and Piano from 1953 or his Piano Sonata from 1954—at almost 15 minutes the longest work on this disc—will not yield a new convert.

The rest take note: Smith is a charming Kleinmeister whose pieces offer anything from the pithy to bold, whimsical to aggressive, flighty changes of mood that make these chamber works varied without coming across as unmotivated, indecisive, or erratic. His Sonata for Viola and Piano contains some very dynamic piano-writing that sounds fun to perform, its nervous quality thrown into sharp contrast with lyrical interludes.

I tend to be a little skeptical when a composition’s movements has titles like “Quarter Note = c. 80–82”—why bother with the (pretense of) old fashioned sonata form when the title screams “but nothing like the old fashioned stuff”—but then Smith’s Piano Sonata, the first movement title of which I just quoted, has an appeal that might be likened to “Piano Tone Poem for a Butterfly with ADD.” It’s light and jumpy, with irregular sparkle equidistant to Debussy’s impressionism and Boulez’s abstractions.

Sarah Darling and Jeffrey Grossman perform ably and with dedication; and the sound is good.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, January 2009

Though Leland Smith will enter the history books as an originator of computerised music typography, his younger years enjoyed a compositional education that included Milhaud, Sessions and Messiaen. Born in California in 1925, he was to become an extremely versatile musician well able to play six instruments at professional level, eventually settling into a career as a bassoonist with some of the leading American orchestras. He shared his time with teaching in major Universities, and was a busy composer for thirty years, though, for some unexplained reason, he has composed nothing since he was forty-six. Much of his output has been in solo and chamber music, the present disc covering works mainly from the 1950s and involving piano, violin and viola in various permutations. He describes himself as a ‘miniaturist’, and all of the works are built from very short movements, many lasting less than a minute. Those movements are generally described by a metronome mark and that does imparts a certain mechanical rigidity. His time spent with Messiaen often surfaces, slow passages contrasting with brief sections flooded with notes. I greatly admire Smith’s immense skill in his Sonatina for violin and piano; the Sonata for viola and piano; his Six Bagatelles and Four Etudes for piano, but this is one of those occasions where the critic has had difficulty connecting with the composer. All are receiving their first recorded performance, the two soloists, Jeffrey Grossman and Sarah Darling (both violin and viola) being persuasive advocates of contemporary music. The sound quality is excellent, and those outside the US will find the disc readily available on Internet.

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