Composer’s Notebook: Cellos, wines and the music of Curtis Bryant

by Mark Gresham | 27 FEB 2017

Pianist Ben Leaptrott and cellist Jean Gay performing wine-inspired music by Atlanta composer Curtis Bryant. (credit: Mark Gresham)

Pianist Ben Leaptrott and cellist Jean Gay performed wine-inspired music by Atlanta composer Curtis Bryant. (credit: Mark Gresham)

I met Atlanta composer Curtis Bryant in the fall of 1974. One of the things quickly learned about Curtis was, in addition to being a composer of considerable craft, that he had a particular fondness and knowledge of wine, both rare and common. He also made wine in his cellar, and I remember co-investing in a shipment of Zinfandel grapes from southern California from which we (mostly Curtis) made a rather robust red Zinfandel in 1975. We wound up with 42 bottles of it when all was said and done. Unlike its paler white and blush cousins, this red Zinfandel was not sweet and took several years to even begin to mature. It did, however, win first place against some commercial wines in some kind of taste test in New York that Curtis had taken it to — though I recall no details of who passed judgment upon it. Supposedly the negatives were for sediment, which is typical characteristic of home-made wines absent the commercial filtration process. But indeed, it was a mighty fine wine for its humble pedigree.

The composer at work: Curtis Bryant. (courtesy of

The composer at work: Curtis Bryant. (courtesy of

It was likewise a fine reminder of these things when just over a week ago (the afternoon of Sunday, February 19, to be exact) I attended a concert which included The Wine Lover’s Guide to the Cello. Curtis had written it in 1991 for cello-piano duo Dorothy and Cary Lewis. In the performance on February 19 at Emory University’s 260-seat Performing Arts Studio (PAS), it was played by cellist Jean Gay and pianist Ben Leaptrott, who also performed another cello-piano work Curtis had written for the Lewises, his simply named Sonata for Cello and Piano (1987). That latter piece had found its way onto the Lewis’s CD, “Music of Southern Composers,” issued under the now-defunct Gasparo label. To round it all off, Leaptrott also gave the world premiere of Bryant’s complete “Sonatina” for solo piano — which had been patiently awaiting a performance in its entirety since it was composed in 2004.

The concert reminded me of how Curtis Bryant has always stuck to his stylistic guns, counter-rebelling against the more edgy musical rebellions of the 20th century, opting instead for a kind of clean modernism that’s well-crafted and lyrical in its aesthetic. Certainly the vocal element informs Bryant’s music, not only his choral octavos and solo songs, but certainly also in his two full-length operas: the three act Zabette — which won him an American Prize this year — and the more recent two-act thriller The Secret Agent.

Those vocal qualities, built on solid harmonic and formal foundations, permeate his instrumental music as well, as evidenced by the performance at Emory, even when he peppers it on occasion with ethnic, folk, blues or jazz elements. It does not become merely “eclectic” in the kind of shallow way one so often encounters these days, but is well underpinned by his sense of mainline Euro-American craft. It was a pleasure to become aquainted and reacquainted with these particular pieces. •

Curtis Bryant’s website can be found at