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Robert KURKA (1921-1957)
Symphonic Works
Julius Caesar, Symphonic Epilogue after Shakespeare, Op. 28 (1955) [8:52]*
Symphony No. 2, Op. 24 (1953) [21:19]
Music for Orchestra, Op. 11 (1949) [13:44]*
Serenade for Small Orchestra, Op. 25 (1954) [19:42]
Grant Park Orchestra/Carlos Kalmar
rec. 29-30 June 2002; 27-28 June 2003, Orchestra Hall, Chicago. DDD
First CD Recordings; * world premiere recordings
Part supported by a grant from The Aaron Copland Fund for Music
CEDILLE CDR 90000077 [63:58]

Kurka's parentage was Czech. He was born in Cicero, Illinois near Chicago. He studied with Luening and Milhaud but not for very long. He was primarily an autodidact. After 1948 he taught at City University of New York and Queens College and was composer-in-residence at Dartmouth College. A Guggenheim Fellowship came his way in 1951 after writing a chamber symphony, a symphony for brass and strings, a violin concerto, four string quartets and two violin sonatas. In 1952 he began an opera based on Jaroslav Hasek's novel The Good Soldier Schweik. Copyright problems obstructed the making of a libretto so he poured his musical ideas into a suite successfully recorded for Albany. Eventually the text problems were surmounted and though suffering from leukaemia he completed the opera not long before his death in New York on 12 December 1957 - ten days before his 36th birthday. Hershy Kay put the finishing touches to the score ready for its premiere by the New York City Opera on 23 April 1958. There's a complete recording from Chicago Opera Theater:Cedille CDR 90000 062.

Kurka's Julius Caesar - termed a 'Symphonic Epilogue' - is in effect a compact tone poem addressing with music of shatteringly apposite force the turmoil of emotions and the passions gripping Caesar and Mark Anthony. Here ignorant armies clash by night. It put me in mind of William Alwyn in the First Symphony of 1949 (try 5:08) spliced with Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony and Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet (5:49). It is at that level - in other words not very dissonant. There are some highly romantic moments but angst and betrayal are never far away. The final Barber-like cauldron of the emotions recalls the tragic gravity of Shakespeare's play.

The Second Symphony was composed in 1953 to a commission from the Paderewski Fund for the Encouragement of American Composers. It was premiered in San Diego on 8 July 1958. Its compact proportions, concentration across three movements and style are of a piece with the overture. Jerky syncopated little cells recall the sort of jazzy excursions found in the finale of Piston's Second Symphony. There is Tippett-like bustling excitement and intricacy of rhythmic activity (Second Symphony and Concerto for Double String Orchestra) in the outer movements. The Randall Thompson of his wonderfully alive Second Symphony is also another presence. Kurka orchestrates lean and clean, leaving the Grant Park violins sounding razor slender at times. The pensive walking theme of the second movement is contentedly pecked out.

The Music for Orchestra was written between November 1948 and May 1949 but did not see the light of day until Carlos Kalmar conducted it at the Grant Park Music Festival on 27 June 2003. It is an explosive and rhythmically aggressive piece which, in its ripely fruity brass work, relates to the horn writing of William Schuman (7:39) in the symphonies and to Hanson's Sixth Symphony (13.30). Kalmar is a fine conductor and I was delighted at last to attend one of his concerts in Cardiff last year - it was a bonus that he was conducting the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in one of the most glorious of American symphonies: Randall Thompson's joyously leaping Second Symphony.

Kurka's Serenade for Small Orchestra is subtitled "after lines by Walt Whitman". It was commissioned by the La Jolla Musical Arts Society and premiered there under the baton of Nikolai Sokoloff on 13 June 1954. Kurka placed 'signposts' from Whitman's poetry at the head of each movement:-

I celebrate myself, and sing myself;
And what I assume, you shall assume;
For every atom belonging to me as good as belongs to you.

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd
And the great star early drooped in the western sky in the night,
I mourned - and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring. . . .

A song for occupations!
In the labor of engines and trades, and the labor of fields,
I find the developments,
And find the eternal meanings. . . .

O to make the most jubilant song!
Full of music - full of manhood, womanhood, infancy!
Full of common employments - full of grain and trees.

From the pristine yield and surge of the first movement we move through melancholic fatigued resignation, to athletic energy and emerge into the purposeful bustle of the allegro. Once again it is Tippett that most often comes to mind together with RVW at his most caperingly eldritch as in the Ninth Symphony. The finale's academic after-taste aside this is a satisfying piece.

Kurka's music is outstanding and well worth your time and bank balance.

Rob Barnett