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Gary Smart: The Major's Letter, Etc / Toppin, Smart


Release Date: 08/30/2005 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 753   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Gary Smart
Performer:  Gary SmartJohn KramarLouise ToppinWilliam Brown,   ... 
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 13 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews



SMART 3 Sonnets from the Portuguese 1. Me and My Song 2. Bittersweets 1. The Major’s Letter 3. The First League Out from Land 4 1 Louise Toppin (sop); 2 William Brown (ten); 3 John Kramar (bar); Read more 4 Marilyn Smart (sop); Gary Smart (pn) ALBANY 753 (73:28 Text and Translation)


Judging from his head of white hair (what’s left of it), white beard, and moustache, I believe it’s safe to assume that Gary Smart is a man at least in his 60s. Unfortunately, his biography tells us everything but where and when he was born. What it does tell us is that his career has encompassed a wide range of activities as composer, classical and jazz pianist, and teacher. Always a musician with varied interests, he may be the only pianist to have studied with Yale scholar/keyboardist Ralph Kirkpatrick, the great Cuban virtuoso Jorge Bolet, and the master jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. A true American pluralist, Smart composes and improvises a music that reflects an abiding interest in Americana, jazz, and world music, as well as the Western classical tradition.


The headnote to this disc is abbreviated in the interest of saving space. Each of the listed entries—except for The Major’s Letter , which is a stand-alone work—is the collective name for a group of songs containing as few as three to as many as nine individual numbers.


The Major’s Letter , from which the album takes its title, is the main item on the disc, a poignant 15-minute setting of a letter written by Major Sullivan Ballou of the Second Rhode Island Regiment to his wife on July 14, 1861, during the American Civil War. In language that knows no time or place, he writes to her as if already dead, telling her how much he loved her and that if the dead can return how he will always be near her. The letter’s narrative, which unfolds largely in the past tense, creates an atmosphere similar to one of those dream sequences seen in films, where a woman who has received news of her husband’s death hears his voice reading a letter he’s written to her. But as the camera zooms in to reveal the letter she’s holding in her hand, we see that it’s blank and his words of love and consolation are distant memories in her mind. We don’t know from the Major’s letter if his wife received it after he’d died in battle, nor do I know if it was Smart’s intent to convey that impression, but his setting, which hovers between recitative and song, is very moving. Smart wrote the piece in 2003–04 for baritone John Kramar, who sings it on the disc. As I listened to it, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another work along similar lines, John Adams’s The Wound-Dresser , a setting of Walt Whitman’s free-verse poem of the same title, also written for baritone voice.


Beyond The Major’s Letter , one has to admire Smart’s literary taste. The Three Sonnets from the Portuguese are settings of three poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning—“Say Over Again,” “Beloved, Thou Hast Brought Me Many Flowers,” and (what Browning collection would be complete without it?) “How Do I Love Thee?” Smart admits that the songs are “unabashedly melodic, Italianate, and harmonically tonal, written in the service of Mrs. Browning’s exquisite texts. In style and manner they reflect the great 19th-century romantic tradition to which they give homage.” Smart wrote the songs for soprano Louise Toppin, who proves herself worthy of them on the CD.


Me and My Song is a group of five songs composed in 2002 to a commission from Smart’s good friend Bill Brown, who passed away shortly after this recording was made. The five poems by Langston Hughes are a celebration of the African-American experience. Smart’s musical settings capture perfectly the jazzy and bluesy lyrics. “Homesick Blues” is a special treat, the lament of an itinerant who longs to hitch a ride in a boxcar every time he sees a train roll by. I won’t spoil it for you by revealing the ending, but I guarantee it will make you laugh out loud.


Smart’s music adapts itself, chameleon-like, to fit the different content, colors, and moods of the texts he sets, but underpinning all of it are traditional formal principles and techniques. Thus, we learn that the last song of the group, “To You,” is based on a transposing chaconne, and that above the recurring harmonic changes the solo voice spins out a florid, Handelian rendition of the poem. I’m not sure Handel would recognize himself in Smart’s mirror, nor can I be sure, not having access to the score, if Smart has written the vocal part in quarter-tones or if tenor William Brown is out of tune. It’s the only one of the five songs in this group in which Brown seems to have this problem, if indeed that’s what it is. It may be an interpretive decision—certain string players refer to it as “expressive intonation”—that Smart and Brown found desirable. Unfortunately, my princess-and-the-pea ear for pitch doesn’t react to it positively.


The Bittersweets group contains four songs on poems by Williams Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, and Sara Teasdale. Though the composer gives no date for their composition, I’m guessing that they are the earliest written pieces on the disc. I base this conclusion in part on Smart’s revelation that he wrote them for his wife, Marilyn, when the two were students at the Yale School of Music, and in part on the music itself, which strikes me as the sort of “progressive” modernist type of writing that academic institutions expected students to embrace. Smart tells us in his own words that his accompaniments to “The Sparrow” and “The Act” are “abstract,” that in “Chaplinesque” the voice “flits around the text,” and that in “I Am Not Yours,” “two disparate aesthetic worlds—full-throated operatic cantabile and the idiomatic rhythmic patterning of Balinese gamelan music are brought together.” Louise Toppin is again the singer for this set of songs.


Poet Emily Dickinson furnishes Smart with his texts for The First League Out from Land , a group of nine songs sung by the composer’s wife, soprano Marilyn Smart. Up until now, I’ve avoided using the word “cycle” to describe these groupings because they tell no story or bear a specific relationship to each other. First League , however, comes closest to meeting the definition of the song cycle concept, for the literary themes of the poems are linked by narratives of death and transcendence, and related musical motives are woven throughout the songs.


The history of American art song is long and impressive, from the contributions of MacDowell, Ives, Barber, and Copland to William Bolcom and John Adams and dozens more in between. With this release, Gary Smart now joins that illustrious list.


FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Read less

Works on This Recording

1.
The Major's Letter by Gary Smart
Performer:  Gary Smart (Piano), John Kramar (Baritone)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Venue:  Fletcher Recital Hall, Greenville, North 
Length: 15 Minutes 12 Secs. 
2.
Sonnets (3) from the Portuguese by Gary Smart
Performer:  Gary Smart (Piano), Louise Toppin (Soprano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Venue:  Fletcher Recital Hall, Greenville, North 
Length: 11 Minutes 7 Secs. 
3.
Bittersweets by Gary Smart
Performer:  Gary Smart (Piano), Louise Toppin (Soprano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Venue:  Fletcher Recital Hall, Greenville, North 
Length: 9 Minutes 45 Secs. 
4.
Me and My Song by Gary Smart
Performer:  William Brown (Tenor), Gary Smart (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Venue:  Fletcher Recital Hall, Greenville, North 
Length: 19 Minutes 13 Secs. 
5.
The First League Out From Land by Gary Smart
Performer:  Gary Smart (Piano), Marilyn Smart (Soprano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Venue:  Fletcher Recital Hall, Greenville, North 
Length: 17 Minutes 59 Secs. 

Sound Samples

3 Sonnets from the Portuguese: No. 1. Say over again
3 Sonnets from the Portuguese: No. 2. Beloved, though hast brought me many flowers
3 Sonnets from the Portuguese: No. 3. How do I love thee?
Me and My Song: No. 1.
Me and My Song: No. 2. Banjo Song
Me and My Song: No. 3. Homesick Blues
Me and My Song: No. 4. Laughers
Me and My Song: No. 5. To You
Bittersweets: No. 1. The Sparrow
Bittersweets: No. 2. Chaplinesque
Bittersweets: No. 3. The Act
Bittersweets: No. 4. I Am Not Yours
The Major's Letter
The First League Out from Land: No. 1. There is no Frigate like a Book
The First League Out from Land: No. 2. Tell the Truth
The First League Out from Land: No. 3. The Morning After Death
The First League Out from Land: No. 4. I've Seen a Dying Eye
The First League Out from Land: No. 5. Because I could not stop for Death
The First League Out from Land: No. 6. The mountain sat upon the Plain
The First League Out from Land: No. 7. There came a wind like a Bugle
The First League Out from Land: No. 8. Presentiment
The First League Out from Land: No. 9.

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