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  August 26-September 2, 2002
The Good Soldier Schweik
Composer: Robert Kurka
Conductor: Alexander Platt
Performer: Jason Collins, Marc Embree, et al.
Ensemble: Chicago Opera Theater
Label: Cedille - #62 

Robert Kurka:
He Coulda Been 
a Contender
f all the forms of recognition available to the gifted, the least rewarding has got to be “posthumous.”  After all, the goal of the artist, as Freud or perhaps Tom Wolfe, once said is fame, money and more beautiful lovers—rewards that more or less require an earthly corpus to enjoy.  Still, death plays no favorites and the talented do often die young, sometimes (as in the case of, Bizet and Bellini) leaving behind a body of enjoyable work or (as in the case of Mozart) enough juvenile drivel to allow the classical recording industry in less than a century to recycle itself into a state of permanent moribundity which, I realize, is not actually a word, but ought to be.

 For others to whom death comes in an untimely manner, we have only fragments from which to judge how good they might have been.  Such is the case of  Robert Kurka, an American composer born in the Czech-American enclave in Cicero, Illinois, on December 22, 1921 who composed the last movements of his only opera based on Jaroslav Hasek's famous anti-war novel The Good Soldier Schweik, in a race with leukemia.  He was able to finish it sufficiently before his death in New York on December 12, 1957 - ten days before his 36th birthday - that composer and arranger Hershy Kay could prepare the work for its premiere, given with considerable success by the New York City Opera on April 23, 1958. Kurka received an award from Brandeis University on May 5, 1957, seven months before his death that proved to be sadly ironic: "To Robert Kurka, a composer at the threshold of a career of real distinction."

Kurka attended Columbia University, but was largely self-taught in composition, studying only briefly with Otto Luening and Darius Milhaud. After graduating from Columbia in 1948, he taught at the City University of New York and Queens College, served as composer-in-residence at Dartmouth College, and began to establish a small reputation. In 1951, after completing a chamber symphony and a symphony for brass and strings, a violin concerto, four string quartets, two violin sonatas and several other works, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship; an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters came the following year. In 1952, he began an opera based on Hasek's satirical novel The Good Soldier Schweik, but had difficulty securing rights to make a libretto, so instead worked his sketches into the orchestral suite that has become his best-known composition. 

Once he finally acquired the rights, he had just enough time to get it down in music before he died, but not in time to see it performed. After the New York City Opera premiere in 1958, the opera gained a cult following during the course of 100 subsequent productions worldwide, but wasn’t recorded until May 2002 when the Chicago independent music publisher Cedille Records gave the world a recording of this unique piece of music performed by the Chicago Opera Theater, which staged Schweik during its 2001 spring season.

Schweik is a simple-minded but clever and enduring anti-hero—the kind of everyman-survivor that modern American audiences perhaps know best from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and, more recently, Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato.   The action takes place just prior to, and during, the first days of World War I in Prague and en route to, and at, the Austrian-Hungarian border. The story unfolds in a series of 14 vignettes played out by the tenor hero (portrayed in Chicago Opera Theater’s production by Jason Collins), a solo baritone (Marc Embree) plus 10 ensemble soloists, each portraying multiple roles as Schweik's antagonists with a 16-piece ensemble much of winds, brasses and percussion. 

Although the work has humor, it is not funny in what it reveals about mankind’s inability to learn the stupidity of war and the way it dehumanizes the people it touches.  That Kurka was a serious man with social concerns is, perhaps, best reflected in his choice of co-librettist, a New York City school teacher named Abel Meeropol, who under the pen name Lewis Allen, wrote what is probably the most powerful protest song of all time—Strange Fruit, made famous by Billie Holiday. Meeropol later adopted the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. 

Taking this recording as an example of musical forensics at its best, Kurka was a composer with vast and original musical powers.  Although it is sometimes compared (and clearly owes a certain debt) to The Three-Penny Opera in its sardonic humor, its extensive use of wind and percussion, its combination of popular musical idioms, occasional ironic dissonance, and its use of "singing actors" whose vocal lines are usually more declamatory than lyrical,  Schweik is closer in spirit and musical kinship to Stravinsky's "L'histoire du Soldat" Weill's "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" and Berg's "Wozzeck" among mid-20th century operas. 

It is impossible to judge the success of an opera from a recording, of course, but what comes through clearly is Kurka’s highly personal command of neo-classical, jazz and folk idioms and his sense of commitment.  Is it a great American opera?  The verdict is still out.  But, it is a serious work that cries out for more productions and exposure to a wider audience.  Beyond its abundant musical charms, its perspective of war from the viewpoint of the common “Schweiks” who are expected to do the killing is particularly relevant now that our armchair generals are once more drumming themselves into a psychotic rage.   JB


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Our writers welcome your comments on their pieces.  Send your witty bon mots tojbowles@sequenza21.com and we might even publish some of them here.  And, don't forget--if you'd like to write for Sequenza21 (understanding that we have no money to pay you), send me a note. JB


CLONE ME AN OPERA: San Francisco Opera has a plan to encourage non-traditional storylines as subjects for opera. One "recently commissioned one-act opera follows the exploits of a scientist who clones herself three times and also genetically engineers a human to incorporate the best genes from every animal on Earth." Wired 08/20/02

MORE SHOWBIZ THAN MUSIC: Music critic John von Rhein despairs of some of the lapses in musical taste he has heard recently. "This nation really does appear to be suffering from a musical illiteracy greater than at any time in the three decades I have been attending concerts. That illiteracy can be observed on both sides of the stage and flourishes most insidiously in the citadels of managerial power. The classical music business, faced with a famously shrinking and aging public as well as a diminished pool of bankable superstars, has been slowly turning serious music into just another branch of show biz." Chicago Tribune 08/18/02

ENTERTAININGLY OUTRAGEOUS: One of the hottest shows at this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival is Jerry Springer: The Opera. Critics love it, and crowds line up each night to buy tickets. The show "features a chorus line of dancing Ku Klux Klansmen and an all-singing cast of adulterous spouses, strippers, crack addicts and transsexuals. 'You think it's going to be some sort of knockabout burlesque, but it starts to affect you emotionally'." Nando Times (AP) 08/20/02

NEWTON VS. THE BEASTIE BOYS: Flutist James Newton found out the Beastie Boys had used a 6-second sample of his playing on a recording without paying him - or even letting him know. He sued and lost - the law says only that the composer and the original record label must give their permission for a sample, not the performer. "Composers are nervously keeping an eye on the case, wondering what kind of precedent it will set if the ruling is upheld." Washington Post 08/22/02

TOO MUCH PERCUSSION: Composer Ned Rorem has always been an outspoken contrarian. As he turns 80, none of that public persona has changed. "The quality of his recent output suggests that these pieces are likely to be those for which he's most remembered. Yet Rorem wonders if it matters: 'I feel we've got about 10 more years and the whole world will blow up,' he said one recent afternoon, sitting in a park here. 'Or at best, we'll end up loving each other in the most mediocre way, and the music you and I like will be in the remote past'." Philadelphia Inquirer 08/25/02

RECIPE FOR REFORM: How does classical music - with its formal dress, gilded halls and stiff traditions, appeal to a less-formal world? "Of course, all the fine arts are elitist, if by that term we mean intellectual, complex, sophisticated. Although the fine arts can also be engrossing, visceral and deeply entertaining, you have to bring your brain to classical music, a requisite that makes it suspicious to some. America has always had an annoying strain of anti-intellectualism. When the perception of elitism keeps people away from high culture, it's a serious problem." Classical music has been experimenting - and needs to experiment more - with ways to draw listeners in. The New York Times 08/25/02

THE SMART SIDE OF CANCELING: Los Angeles Opera's cancellation of a Kirov production of Prokofiev's War and Peace for lack of money could be a sign of the company's inner turmoil. But perhaps not. "As I wrote at the end of last season, L.A. Opera has a reputation for chaos, and the upside of that may be an ability to think on its feet and turn on a dime. L.A. Opera's decision to import Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk from the Kirov in place of War and Peace is brilliant." Los Angeles Times 08/24/02

ENGLISH NATIONAL OPERA TO REMAIN FULL TIME: Opera lovers have been angry about rumours that the English National Opera company was "considering plans to shut down for 16 months, make many of its staff redundant and use its Coliseum theatre in Covent Garden, central London only part-time." But this week the companies directors declared they're committed to keeping the ENO fulltime." BBC 08/23/02

INFLICTING MUSIC: Cambridge scientists drugged mice in an experiment - injecting half with salt, the other half with methamphetamine, then blasted loud music at them to gauge their reaction. "The music was either from dance act The Prodigy or Bach's Violin Concerto in A Minor, both of which have a similar tempo. Animals injected with salt fell asleep with the music. But the sound dramatically affected the drugged mice, causing them to suffer more speed-induced brain damage than normal. They appeared to 'jiggle backwards and forwards' as the music pounded in their ears." The researchers have been reprimanded for cruelty to animals. Sydney Morning Herald 08/20/02

VOLUME MISCOUNT: Are today's orchestras too loud? "Orchestras have become much, much louder since the 18th century. And the process has gathered pace dramatically since the Second World War. We have reached the point where brass instruments exceed permitted industrial noise levels. Orchestral players are advised, or instructed, to wear earplugs, and with good reason. Musicians are being deafened by music. It is an absurd situation." London Evening Standard 08/21/02

 Last Week's News

Record companies, artists and publicists are invited to submit CDs to be considered for our Editor's Pick's of the month.  Send to: Jerry Bowles, Editor, Sequenza 21, 340 W. 57th Street, 12B, NY, NY 10019  Also, feel free to nominate your favorite composer-- even if it's you--for Spotlight of the Week.





Leggiero, pesante
Composer: Valentin Vasil'yevich Silvestrov
Performer: Silke Avenhaus, Anja Lechner
Ecm Records - #461898 

Coming (Pretty) Soon:
To Santa Fe

From the what's developing in the opera pipeline comes word that three American composers -- Bright Sheng in 2003; Theodore Shapiro in 2004; and Aaron Jay Kernis in 2006 are beavering away on   full-scale operas for the Santa Fe Opera. 

“Beginning with our very first commission in 1957 (The Tower by Marvin David Levy), The Santa Fe Opera, under the leadership of founder John Crosby, has become widely known for its support of composers and the performance of their works,” says General Director Richard Gaddes. “Some of the most important names in composition received early visibility in Santa Fe – Carlisle Floyd, Peter Lieberson, Tobias Picker, Hans Werner Henze, to name just a few. The presentation of new works has been a hallmark of The Santa Fe Opera, and one that we plan to continue vigorously."

Bright Sheng, winner of a 2001 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Award,” is 46. Born in China,  Sheng’s life was affected by the Cultural Revolution and his music is
very much an expression of his life and experiences in China.

 Educated at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music where he earned his undergraduate degree, Mr. Sheng came to this country in 1982. He was composer in residence at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and in 1993, at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. The Silver River, a music theater piece for actors, dancers and instrumentalists commissioned by the Festival was premiered in Santa Fe in 1997. His highly acclaimed H’un (Lacerations): In Memoriam 1966-76, a dramatic orchestral portrait of the Cultural Revolution, has been widely performed. His music has been described as a unique synthesis of Western and Asian forms and styles. He was cited by the MacArthur Foundation as “a voice in cross-cultural music, exploring and bridging musical traditions.” 

Madame Mao, with a libretto by Colin Graham, focuses on the extraordinary life of the young actress Jiang Ching, the second wife of Mao Zedong. She became the most powerful and feared woman in the country and leader of the Cultural Revolution that destroyed much of China’s artistic and intellectual heritage. Two singers will portray Madame Mao; one, the young actress, the other, the older Madame Mao. 

Graham, well known both as a stage director and librettist, has written texts for Andre Previn, Benjamin Britten and Stephen Paulus, among many. He has also staged no fewer than 55 world premieres including A Streetcar Named Desire (Andre Previn), The Ghosts of Versailles (John Corigliano), The Tale of Genji (Minoru Miki) and Dangerous Liaisons (Conrad Suza). 

Theodore Shapiro’s opera, his first, will be premiered in 2004. The young composer, 31, has distinguished himself as a composer both of
 film scores and concert music, including scores for two David Mamet movies,Heist and State and Main. Mr. Shapiro has a B.A. from Brown University and has studied at Juilliard. His concert pieces include a piano concerto for Awadagin Pratt, premiered by the Seattle Symphony, a chamber work, City of Windows, also performed by Pratt; and a work for soprano Lauren Flanigan. Chambers, commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, was premiered recently in Los Angeles.
Aaron Jay Kernis, 41, is winner of the 2002 Grawemeyer Award for Colored Field, and the youngest winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Music (1998). Only one other
 composer has been accorded both honors. One of the most visible composers of his generation, his works are widely performed and recorded. In addition to his Santa Fe Opera commission,  Kernis is working on a piano concerto for the Singapore Symphony and the Minnesota Orchestra, and a large orchestral work for Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. His opera for Santa Fe is his first, and will be based on the novel, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, this year’s winner of the PEN/Faulkner prize. The story describes a gala birthday party being given to honor a Japanese industrialist in an unnamed South American country, rebels enter the house and take the guests hostage. As the story unfolds, what happens to both the guests and the terrorists in their ensuing days of captivity is revealed. Miss Patchett is the author of three previous novels. She is also a contributor to a number of important national and international publications. 

Since 1957, in the high desert of Northern New Mexico. the Santa Fe Opera has presented 118 operas, including 9 world and 39 American premieres. 

Miller Theatre: 
2002-03 Season at a Glance
Classical Grammy Winners

Previous Interviews/Profiles
Simon Rattle, Michael Gordon,Benjamin Lees, Scott Lindroth, David Felder, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Erkki-Sven Tüür, John Luther Adams, Brett Dean, Judith Lang Zaimont, Meyer Kupferman, Evan Chambers, Poul Ruders, Steven R. Gerber, Gloria Coates

Previous Articles/
Busoni The Visionary
The Composer of the Moment:  Mark-Anthony Turnage
Electronic Music
Voices: Henze at 75
Henze Meets Emenim
On Finding Kurtag
Charles Ruggles:  When Men Were Men
Ballet Mécanique
The Adams Chronicles


Symphonies 4 & 5
Composer: Rued Langgaard
      Performers: Dausgaard, Danish Radio Symphony
   Da Capo [Naxos] - #8224215

Langgard is a lonely figure in Danish music primarily because he was the only Dane to go all the way with Late Romanticism and the only one to say that Carl Neilsen was pretty much an overrated windbag whose music was unnecessarily obtuse. In 1940 he was engaged for the first time in an official capacity, as the cathedral organist in Ribe, far from the music life of the capital. And there he lived, a bitter man, until his death. Nonetheless, he wrote over 400 works: sixteen symphonies and other pieces, many of them like the symphonies recorded here, plain old masterpieces. 

Symphonies 7 & 9
Composer: Roy Harris
Performer(s): Kuchar, Nat'l So of Ukraine
Naxos - #8559050 

Roy Harris's Third Symphony
was such a compact, fully-realized masterpiece that it often seems as if he  spent the rest of his career like Roman Polanski wandering around trying to remember how he made Chinatown.  This point-of-view tends to obscure the fact that he wrote many other splendid works that reflect a deep sense of "American" motifs.

Piano Sonatas 4 & 7
Composer:  Leo Ornstein
Performer(s):  Janice Weber
Naxos - #8559104 

When Russian born composer and pianist Leo Ornstein died in February at109 years old, he left behind one of the strangest legacies in music history. At the height of his career, he abruptly ceased performing and quietly faded into semi-obscurity, only to be "re-discovered" every 15 years or so. This disc reflects opposite ends of Ornstein's career--the 1924 Sonata No. 4 is from his radical "futurist" period; No. 7, from 1988, is more traditional but no less engaging. Janice Weber's reading makes it clear that when Ornstein composed, a genius was at work.

Music for 4 Stringed Instruments
Composer:  Charlies Martin Loeffler 
Performer(s): Da Vinci Quartet
Naxos - #8559077

Loeffler's brand of lush late Romanticism was still in bloom when he died in 1935 and he was regarded as one of America's best composers. Today, he is forgotten which is really a oversight because--based on the evidence of this fine recording, at least--he was an American Vaughan Williams and music this beautiful deserves to be heard even if it's a bit too easy to like. 

Orchestral Works
Composer: Elisaetta Brusa
Performer(s): Mastrangelo, Nat'l So of Ukraine
Naxos - #8555266 

Call it Neo-Tonal or Neo-Romantic, Brusa's pieces for orchestra break no new ground but they have a kind of formal academic elegance that seems more German than Italian in temperament but demonstrates a lively, intelligent mind at work. 

Orchestral Works
Composer: George Whitefield Chadwick
  Performer:  Schermerhorn, Nashville Sym Orch
Naxos - #8559117

Chadwick is considered the first composer of concert music whose works often show the snap, the wit, the independence of the American spirit. During his career, he modernized the New England Conservatory, taught several generations of American composers, and was a pioneer in making professional instruction available to women and racial minorities. Terrific performances from the first-rate Nashville Symphony.

Cello Concerto
Composer:  Ernst Toch
Mutare Ensemble, Muller-Hornbach
Cpo Records - #999688 

cpo continues to make the case for Toch as a neglected modernist master whose serious work was obscured by his success as a Hollywood film composer. Most of releases is this series have been convincing but this one is somewhat disappointing. The Cello Concerto goes off in too many directions and could have used a good editing. Plus, the sound quality on this recording is strange. Can't put my finger on it, but it's strange.


Complete Works for Violin & Piano
Composer:  Aaron Copland, Posnak, Zazofsky
Naxos - #8559102 

Copland is most known for his ballets and grand orchestral pieces but he often used small chamber works as building blocks to larger concepts. Most interesting here are the arrangements for violin and piano for well-known pieces of Rodeo and Billy the Kid.

It Takes Two
Performer(s): Bart Schneemann
Channel Classics - #18598 

 Have oboe, will travel should be Bart Schneemann motto in this delicious set of duos with some of the world's finest musicians on instruments ranging from the clarinet and the viola to the marimba and the bandoneon. The composers are brand names all--from Andriessen and Bartok to Piazzolla to Vanghan Williams. Most inventive. Our personal favorite of the month.

Cello Sonata / Cello Works
Composers: Schumann, Grieg
Performers: Marie Hallynck, Tiberghien
Harmonia Mundi Franc - #911779 
Harmonia mundi's Les Nouveaux Musiciens features the young Belgian/French cellist Marie Hallynck in stunning accounts of Schumann' s "Adagio and Allegro," "Phantasienstke," and "Funf Stucke im Volkston" for cello and piano, as well as Grieg's "Sonate Pour Violoncelle et Piano." Our kind of easy listening. 

Darkness & Light 4
ComposerPerformer(s): Weiner, Starer, Stern, Korngold, Lees, Holt
Albany Music Dist. - #518 

  The latest release from the Chamber Music Series at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is highlighted by the stunningly original "Piano Trio No. 2 "Silent Voices" (1998) by Benjamin Lees. Anguished and almost unbearably intense, Lees crams more drama, passion and empathy into this 14-minute piece than many composers muster in a lifetime.

Chamber Music
Composer: Lawrence Dillon
Cassatt String Quartet, Borromeo String Quartet, Mendelssohn String Quartet

In 1985, Lawrence Dillon became the youngest composer to earn a doctorate at the Juilliard School. He studied privately with Vincent Persichetti, and in classes with Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, David Diamond and Roger Sessions. Upon graduation, he was appointed to the Juilliard faculty. He is currently Assistant Dean at the North Carolina School of the Arts where he is also Composer-in-Residence and conductor of the contemporary music ensemble. The three pieces recorded here might be considered genre-bending in that they attempt to blend elements of post-modernism and older forms like romanticism. 


SEQUENZA21/ is published weekly by Sequenza21/, 340 W. 57th Street, 12B, New York, NY 10019
Publisher:  Duane Harper Grant  (212) 582-4153
Editor:    Jerry Bowles   (212) 582-3791
Contributing Editor: Deborah Kravetz 
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