The latest CD by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus , Everything Lasts Forever, will be released on Friday by ASO Media (CD-1011). The disc features four works by the intrepid Michael Kurth, an Atlanta-based composer and member of the ASO’s contrabass section. ASO music director Robert Spano conducts the orchestra with mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor as featured as vocal soloist.
On Wednesday of last week, the ASO held a special listening party for Kurth and the CD at Argosy in East Atlanta. EarRelevant was there and acquired a copy. The multi-tiered back room of the village gastropub, with massive sculpture of a giant squid looming overhead, was an excellent choice for the early evening ticketed event where the CD made public debut in advance of the official release date.
Another listening event which will focus on the final work on the disc, Kurth’s Miserere, will take place this Sunday at 5:45pm at North Avenue Presbyterian Church with both Kurth and Atlanta poet Jesse Breite, who wrote the texts for two of the movements, will take part in the discussion and answer questions.
In terms of musical style, Kurth is a skilled post-classical composer and who is a populist at heart who is not embarrassed by the word “accessible.” His music is melodic, tonal, rhythmic and shows the influence of world and pop music – essentially the aesthetic of Spano’s “Atlanta School of Composers” which includes such names a Michael Gandolfi, Christopher Theofanidis and Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Higdon.
The disc is introduced by the title piece, Everything Lasts Forever (2012), which remains my own favorite among Kurth’s orchestral works. It was inspired by street art that the composer would see on his way to work at the ASO.
The overall title was derived from a faded, peeling banner the composer saw plastered on the Krog Street bridge in Cabbagetown. Kurth was struck by the appealing irony and the truth of the phrase. The titles of each of the movements also refers to specific pieces of street art, most of which, it seems, no longer exist.
The first movement, “Toes,” based on a 12-bar blues progression with a bass-heavy two note motif, evokes the ominously agitated stomping of giant cartoon feet, which, in the end, are triumphant in their darkly comic victory. Kurth only later learned that giant sneakers and hairy yellow feet pained ton the back of a building, bearing only the signature “TOES,” was created by the late Harrison Keys.
The artist’s identity came to light only after his mother heard Kurth discussing the music on WABE rdio with City Lights host Lois Reitzes. Sarah Keys reached out to Kurth. One of the results of that contact was that a recording of “Toes” accompanied an exhibit of Harrison Keys’ art at the Pratt-Pullman Yard this past November.
“Bird Sing Love,” in contrast,is Kurth’s lyrical response a simple outline illustration of a lone bird on a boarded-up door with a red heart in front of its open beak, singing a sad but persistently hopeful song in the midst of hardship and decay.
The final movement, “We Have All the Time in the World,” is optimistic with its simple, joyfully persistent melody that’s wrapped in an awkwardly unsteady 7/8 meter.
Listen to all three movements of Everything Lasts Forever in the following YouTube video:
A Thousdand Words (2015) us so named, Kurth says, “because it would take that many words to describe the piece adequately.” Fair enough, becasue Kurth is also as skilled at wordplay as he is at composing, showing verbal wit and imagination, as well as metaphorical insight.
Written during the final months of 2010, May Cause Dizziness was Kurth’s first work for full orchestra. The three minute piece was part of a group of orchestral fanfares celebrating Robert Spano’s 10th anniversary as music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The title was lifted from a bottle of prescription medicine.
At 27 minutes. Miserere is the longest work on the disc, the most recently composed (2017) and the only one involving a chorus. Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, who has been a frequent guest soloist with the ASO since her 2005 debut with them in Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar. She also had experience performing in two other Kurth choral works, his Magnificat (2016) and Tenebrae (2017) prior to joining the ASO forces in their premiere of his Miserere in March 2018.
Kurth calls Miserere “a personal expression of conviction, contrition and self-admonition.” (The Latin imperative “miserere” translates to English as “have mercy” or “have pity.”) Ancient texts from the Judeo-Christian tradition are interwoven with modern reflections on New Testament characters Judas (representing betrayal) and Thomas (doubt), set to a musical style that is “modern primitive” in character, often groove-based, and definitively tonal. ■
The Serenbe Artist in Residence program helped foster Kurth’s creation of “Miserere,” the final work on the CD. See the video below by filmmaker Kristian Melom.
*Note: This article was updated on March 29 to include a video of the title piece, Everything Lasts Forever, published on YouTube by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.