Michael Kurek, Composer
"Passionately Romantic Music --
By the end, a man seated near me was wiping away a tear -- a woman appeared to be...for lack of a better word, swooning."
That's how one audience member recently described the scene at a performance of Michael Kurek's music. Here is a classical composer who has self-assuredly emerged from his 20th-century roots to forge a vibrantly emotional, personal musical voice for the 21st century. While fresh and original in style, this is richly melodic music, grounded in narrative formal design and essentially traditional tonality â€“ notoriously traditional by the old avant-garde, 20th-century standards, some say. But Kurek does not seek to usurp his more experimental academic colleagues. Rather, having mastered 20th-century techniques himself with distinction, he would now argue through the integrity of his tonal craft the case for a new kind of pluralism in contemporary composition, demonstrating that the new century's avant-garde is no longer so much a matter of stretched sonic boundaries, nor of striking postmodern juxtapositions, nor even of a â€œretroâ€ movement, but of a bold new attitude of diversity that finally allows experimental and new traditional voices all to coexist in what he calls a true aesthetic "quilt."
Throughout his stylistic evolution from modernism to postmodernism to what he calls â€œinclusive traditionalism,â€ Michael Kurek's ever-present integrity of craft and his music's emotional power have steadily earned him both national and international recognition. He has received some of the nation's most important composition awards and has enjoyed world-wide performance, publication, and recording of his works for the concert hall. His numerous prizes for composition include the Academy Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Academy's highest annual â€œlifetime achievementâ€ award in music (the Academy had earlier awarded him their Charles Ives Prize). Kurek has garnered a MacDowell Fellowship from the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire; a Fromm Fellowship in Composition at the Tanglewood Music Center; a Fellowship at the Wellesley College Composers Conference; and first-place wins in many national composition competitions, along with prestigious awards and recognitions from Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI), the American Symphony Orchestra League, Meet the Composer Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Music Teachers' National Association.
Michael Kurek's music has been performed throughout the U.S. and, internationally, multiple times in France, England, Germany, Japan, Korea, Denmark, Czech Republic, Russia, and on Swedish television. A variety of professional soloists and chamber groups have performed his works during numerous guest composer residencies at universities, music festivals, conferences, and concert venues (e.g., the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D. C.). Michael Kurek's works have been featured by the principal professional symphony orchestras of cities as diverse as Atlanta , Indianapolis , Green Bay , Nashville , Bridgeport , Lansing , and Fargo , by the Pacific Symphony Orchestra in Los Angeles , the Czech Radio Philharmonic in Prague , the Tomsk Philharmonic (Russia), the Reutlingen Philharmonie (Stuttgart, Germany), and several university orchestras and chamber ensembles. He has been profiled in numerous magazines, journals, and newspapers, and his music has been widely broadcasted on classical radio stations, including nationally on NPR's â€œMorning Edition.â€ A BMI-affiliated composer, he is published by International Music Service (New York), Lyon & Healy (Chicago), and Spectrum Music Press (Los Angeles).
He serves on several professional boards and committees, including voting membership and service to NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) in Los Angeles, which administers the Grammy Awards, and the John W. Work III Memorial Foundation, which awards minority music scholarships nationally. A popular guest composer at Universities and music schools, Dr. Kurek also serves as an adjudicator in national music competitions, such as the Music Teachers National Association's MTNA-Shepherd "Distinguished Composer of the Year" award, the Golden Key Honor Society, the Young Texas Artists Music Competition, the National Federation of Music Clubs Young Composers Competition, the Marion Richter American Music Awards, and the Victor Herbert/ASCAP Awards.
Professor Kurek serves as Chair of the Department of Music Composition / Theory at the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, having previously held positions at the State University of New York at Fredonia and at the Chicago Musical College of Roosevelt University. His own teachers included European composers Hans Werner Henze and Eugene Kurtz, along with American Pulitzer-prize winners Leslie Bassett and William Bolcom at the University of Michigan , where he received the Doctor of Musical Arts degree in composition.
At the American Academy of Arts and Letters May, 1994 Ceremonial in New York, composer Ned Rorem read aloud the following citation: "Michael Kurek's music harmonizes in a charming and compelling way, intense lyricism with intellectual depth, clear and elegant formal design, and with a richly imaginative orchestral surface. His harp concerto exemplifies his ability of displaying a musical narrative that is as accessible as it is demanding. His musical world is an intensely traditional one, accented and punctuated by gestures and rhythms of today." [The harp concerto and other works can be found on Michael Kurek's CD with New World Records; see Amazon.com and other sources.)
Here are the composer's program notes for the first work on the CD, the Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano:
I. Pas de deux
II. Le piquenique (â€œPicnicâ€)
IV. Plein de dÃ©sir (â€œLongingâ€)
This recording was made live in concert at Turner Recital Hall in Nashville, Tennessee. The performers, all faculty members at Vanderbilt University, were Carolyn Huebl, violin; Felix Wang, cello; and Melissa Rose, piano. Their biographies can be found on the Vanderbilt University web site (Blair School of Music page).
My first piano trio is my most extensive chamber work to date, lasting around forty minutes. The outer two movements are longer and tend toward the tragic and serious, while the inner two are lighter and more tender, respectively. People familiar with my work know that in recent years I have been exploring what turns out to be the difficult craft of traditional tonal composition. I say â€œdifficultâ€ partly because, for most people, new tonal music tends to invite comparisons more easily and reveal its flaws more transparently than less-familiar modernist and avant-garde styles, even though the latter can be equally derivative or flawed without so many people recognizing it. However, a workâ€™s stylistic influences, or â€œwho it sounds like,â€ seem to me far less important in the end than simply whether it is a compelling piece of music to hear. I would like to think that a few neo-traditional voices like mine can contribute some musical diversity within this new centuryâ€™s contemporary music circles. However, I have gone in this direction primarily because it is where my artistic inclinations have led me, and it is what I enjoy writing, being a melodist at heart. Of course it is not my intention merely to present melodies but rather to engage the listener in a dramatic argument throughout a long form, cultivating the contrapuntal and harmonic â€œcharacter developmentâ€ of those melodies toward a dramatic climax. This sometimes entails quite a workout for what might otherwise be some simple tunes. Nonetheless, I hope that the music is fundamentally tuneful and emotionally evocative. Neither do I intend to imply through these remarks that the music was composed to demonstrate a set of ideals, as strongly as I may hold them. Rather, I offer this music in the same way it was composed, simply as music-making for the listenerâ€™s pleasure, like a lovingly prepared four-course meal, and with a â€œBon appÃ©tit!â€
As its title, the ballet term Pas de deux (â€œstep for twoâ€), implies, the first movement was conceived as a potential ballet duet, whether real or imagined. I assumed when I composed it that any choreography would only be imagined, but then it turned out that the movement was first presented by the Nashville Ballet to choreography by Sarah Slipper. The scenario I originally envisioned was a poignant and dramatic farewell between ill-fated lovers, with the male dancerâ€™s role represented by the cello and the femaleâ€™s by the violin. I constructed the movement in traditional sonata form with three themes, all introduced by the two string instruments. The first theme alternates between them in dialog, each part continually echoing the celloâ€™s first, two-note â€œcallingâ€ motive; the second theme at last joins the lovers on the same melody; and the third is stated by the violin, with a cello countermelody. After fragments of these themes are developed in an increasingly turbulent musical discussion, the climactic return of all three intact themes (the second and third now played simultaneously) further intensifies the loversâ€™ conversation. But, thanks to the wordless mystery of both music and dance, we cannot tell exactly what they are saying.
The second movement is titled Le piquenique -- I decided it would be more consistent and not out of character with my musical influences to maintain French titles for all the movements. The score is marked â€œscherzando giocosoâ€ and entirely departs from the scene of the Pas de deux. It was inspired by, and dedicated to, a group of dear young friends with whom I had a most joyous picnic one beautiful September day in Nashvilleâ€™s Edwin Warner Park. As if wildly romping through that huge, open field (and several keys!) to our picnic site, this music recalls for me all the anticipation, excitement, and tender enchantment of that afternoon. It felt as charming and fresh as being magically transported into a sunny poppy field painted by Monet. Continuing my exploration of traditional forms, I designed the movement as a large rondo in three parts (ABA - C - ABA), where â€œCâ€ is a new theme contrasting from the refrain (A) more distinctly than does B.
I imagined the third (primarily slow) movement, Ã‰lÃ©gie, as a kind of continuation of the first movement, that is, another scene in the same imaginary ballet story, and it was actually the second movement to be composed. The conversational style that begins the first movement also begins the third, this time with the violin speaking first. The loversâ€™ words are filled both with mourning and consolation. Perhaps they are now apart, and separately each is only imagining speaking to the other. After the opening idea is stated in dialog and then together by the two strings, the piano introduces a gentle second theme, something like a very slow dream-waltz, which is subsequently taken up by each of the strings. Then the two themes are combined, one in each string part, and repeated with the roles exchanged, the players finally joining together on the last part of the waltz theme for the climax of the movement. (So the form is essentially ternary: A, B, A+B.) This movement, like so many others of mine, was conceived in, and surely colored by, the haunting environs of Savannah, Georgia. This time I was exploring a dense, semi-tropical glade on Cockspur Island and suddenly found myself in a small, secluded clearing, closely surrounded by giant palmettos, whose fronds seemed to cast the long slices of their exotic shadows upon my soul. This music rather involuntarily began to flood into my mind, as music always seems to do in Savannah, and so I kept returning to the same spot, complete with folding chair, to work on it, and then completed it in Nashville.
The finale of the trio is titled â€œLongingâ€ -- in French, Plein de dÃ©sir. It begins as a fast movement with an agitated first theme in the violin, but then the cello introduces a slow second theme. For me, the two themes have the character of two different kinds of longing, the first urgent and conflicted, and the second lovingly yearning. These themes eventually interact in a kind of conversation about longing that is central to the movementâ€™s conception and sonata design. A simpler and more optimistic closing theme is briefly introduced by the solo piano to complete the exposition of themes. The development section and recapitulation grow increasingly stormy, until the sunny closing idea ultimately emerges as an expanded coda. With its reassuring rays, so to speak, this coda is intended to provide in the broadest sense a triumphant and life-affirming conclusion both to this movement and to the entire work.
Here are the composer's program notes for the second work on the CD, the Violin Concerto.
This recording is of the version for violin and piano (another version for violin and orchestra exists and has been performed). This was recorded in Zipper Hall in Los Angeles by Kathryn Eberle, violin, with John Blacklow, piano.
I. cantabile -- appassionatamente
This concerto, my first for violin, was commissioned for the gifted young violinist Kathryn Eberle. I regard this work as a breakthrough in my several-year evolution from my former 20th-century modernism to a personal, emotional, tonal, narrative, traditional musical vocabulary. The first two, lyrical, movements were conceived and largely written during holidays sitting in a beach chair at my own special place of haunted solitude, the Old North Pier of Cockspur Island, Georgia, where the Savannah River meets the Atlantic Ocean, near my parentsâ€™ home in Savannah. The third movement, a fantastic struggle between a fast and a slow theme, was written during the winter months in Nashville. Kathryn premiered the concerto with the Nashville Symphony and has performed it in the piano version heard on this recording in New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and other venues around the country.
Check out the artist's website:
1. Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano, Movement 1: Pas de deux
2. Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano, Movement 2: Le piquenique
3. Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano, Movement 3: Ã‰lÃ©gie
4. Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano, Movement 4: Plein de dÃ©sir
5. Violin Concerto, Movement 1: Cantabile -- appassionatamente
6. Violin Concerto, Movement 2: Affettuosamente
7. Violin Concerto, Movement 3: Furiosamente