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LEO SMIT: A Crazy Quilt of American Piano Music

The MHS Review 377 VOL. 10, NO. 17 • 1986

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Thomas Frost

Leo Smit, pianist, composer, conductor, and lecturer, has been astutely described as a "com­pleat contemporary musician."


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A Crazy Quilt of American Piano Music

Leo Smit, pianist, composer, conductor, and lecturer, has been astutely described as a "com­pleat contemporary musician." His international­ly established career is characterized by a com­bination of versatility and expertise that is seldom found in our era of specialization. He was born in Philadelphia and displayed prodigious musical gifts at an early age. At eight he was a scholarship student of Dmitri Kabalevsky in Moscow and at nine a scholarship student at the Curtis Institute studying with Vengerova as well as with Jose lturbi. At 15 he was already a professional as pianist for George Balanchine and the American Ballet Theater, where he collaborated with Igor Stravin­sky in preparing three ballets, including the world premiere of Jeu de cartes.

Since his Carnegie Hall debut at 18, Smit has continued to perform worldwide, particularly championing 20th-century music. He has pre­miered works by Bartok, Bliss, and Kabalevsky, among others, and his recordings include his specialties of Liszt and even Cole Porter. It is, however, with Aaron Copland that his interpretive career is most closely linked. The first of Copland's Four Piano Blues is dedicated to Smit, and it was he who gave the work its first performance. In the nationally televised "Live from Kennedy Center" honoring Copland on his 80th birthday, Leo Smit was soloist in the Piano Concerto. In addition, his recent recording of Copland's Complete Solo Piano Music was nominated for a 1980 Grammy.

As a composer, Smit began his study at 14 with Nicolas Nabokov. As a recipient of both Fulbright and Guggenheim Fellowships in 1950-52, he studied at the American Academy in Rome. In 1947 Smit composed his first major work, Virginia Sampler, commissioned by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. His First Symphony, commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation and the League of Composers, was premiered by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony and subsequently won the New York Critics' Circle Award. His Second Sym­phony was given a New York premiere by Leonard Bernstein, conducting the New York Philhar­monic. In November 1981 Smit conducted the premiere of his Third Symphony in Belgrade, Yugoslavia--a commission to honor the anniver­sary of the friendship between that nation and the USA. Among his compositions for voice is a choral work, Copernicus, a collaboration with astron­omer Sir Fred Hoyle commissioned by the Nation­al Academy of Sciences to commemorate the 500th birthday of Nicolas Copernicus.

Leo Smit has also won acclaim as a conductor, presenting his own works as well as those of many other composers. In addition, his unique style and creative command of verbal language makes his lecture recitals (from Beethoven's Diabelli Varia­tions to Jazz) more than just a musically educa­tional experience. His academic positions have included Head of the Piano Department at UCLA from 1957-62 and his present position as Professor of Composition at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Leo Smit's other diverse interests extend to literature, history, the American Indian, chess, nature, ... and people. He is a person who con­tinues to be thrilled by life's wonders, whose mind is ever curious, searching, never bored.

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