Michael Kurek: The Sea Knows
Navona Records

Michael Kurek's neo-traditionalist approach naturally resonates with listeners hungry for clearly delineated narrative development and a tonal compositional language. Far from dismissing the audience as a factor in the musical experience, he consciously strives to engage the listener with material that's luxuriant and emotionally direct. Such qualities are in abundant supply on his The Sea Knows, a sumptuous collection of five works that should do much to bring his name to an even greater level of awareness than it already is.

In writing in the style that he does, Kurek, a faculty member of the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University, is being neither calculating nor cynical; rather, he's guided by a simple principle: to write the kind of music he'd like to hear himself were he sitting in the audience. He's certainly received recognition for the work he's produced, with one award being an Academy Award in Music for “lifetime achievement” in composition from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Still, no better argument for his music need be made than the recording itself.

The title track aside, the album features chamber works performed by one to three instruments. Whatever their differences, all are characterized by a distinctively dreamlike quality that exerts a powerful seductive pull on the listener. Kurek's likening of his music to “a river with a forward-moving current that pulls you along through time until you feel transported to some transcendent perception by the climax or by the end” effectively captures the entrancement that sets in as a typical piece unfolds. In that regard, it's telling that the album positions a serenade first, almost as a statement of principle.

Words such as post-modern and atonality little apply to Kurek's music; if anything, The Sea Knows more invites descriptors like romantic and impressionistic. The opening Serenade for Violoncello and Harp, written as a musical gift for his wife, is given a ravishing reading by violoncellist Ovidiu Marinescu and harpist Rita Costanzi. Unabashedly romantic in tone, Kurek's music wears its heart on its sleeve when the instruments engage in an intimate courtship for seventeen engrossing minutes. The composer gifts Marinescu with two lyrical themes the violoncellist subjects to repeated explorations and transformations, his deeply expressive articulations complemented by the lush harmonizations of Costanzi's radiant performance. Sweeping in tone, the serenade exudes a beauty that's well-nigh time-stopping.

Moon Canticle, performed with delicacy of touch and feeling by harpist Soledad Yaya (her playing often lightly brushed with chimes), plays like an affectionate ode to the celestial body, with Kurek formally imagining the work as “a continual shower of moonbeams falling upon an enchanted forest of shifting harmonic shadows.” A subtle strain of Southern gothic mystery seeps into Savannah Shadows, a contrapuntal string trio setting executed with exceptional musicality by The Atlantic Ensemble; the symbiosis achieved by violinist Wei Tsun Chang, violist Seanad Dunigan Chang, and violoncellist Kirsten Cassel Greer in the performance makes for some of the album's most emotional playing, with feelings of loss and nostalgia articulated with an open-hearted directness verging on palpable. If the Sonata for Viola and Harp feels less characteristic of the style exemplified by the other recently composed pieces, it might be because it was written in 1987 and thus enacts a bridge between the influence of his Modernist training and the overtly traditional style he now embraces. In its incorporation of exotic scales outside of the standard major-minor scale system, Kurek's citing of Hindemith by way of association seems especially on-point.

The title track, a resplendent single-movement tone poem scored for cello soloist (Marinescu, for whom it was composed) and string orchestra (The Vanderbilt Strings), can't help but call to mind La Mer, not only because of the works' respective titles but for the lulling, wave-like undulations of Kurek's string writing; that said, there's a majesty to the material that invites comparison to Sibelius. Here and elsewhere, the appeal of Kurek's music isn't hard to understand. The elegance of its modulations and the lyrical richness of its melodies are but two aspects that speak powerfully on its behalf, and it's telling that such qualities are evident in not only the recently composed pieces but the Sonata for Viola and Harp, too; a transitional work it might be, but traces of Kurek's current style can be detected without too much difficulty in that 1987 creation.

August 2017