This week’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concerts include another world premiere celebrating Robert Spano’s decade as music director. But the program doesn’t follow the pattern of the six previous fanfares. Spano won’t be on the podium, for one thing, and the composer does not boast a portfolio of major orchestral commissions.
Michael Kurth joined the ASO’s double bass section when he was 22; composing has been a sideline, although that part of his career is gaining in recognition and popularity. His fanfare, titled “May Cause Dizziness,” lasts about three minutes and is his first work for full orchestra.
“This all feels a little surreal,” explains Kurth, now 39, who is laconic, frizzy-haired and a little irreverent. “I’m honored to be included, but I’m so far from where most composers are coming from. I’m not even a pianist.”
It’s a high-calorie program. Conducted by Roberto Abbado, a frequent ASO guest, the orchestra will play popular symphonies by Haydn and Brahms and the Bartok Third Piano Concerto with Peter Serkin as soloist. And a world-premiere fanfare to start.
Growing up outside Baltimore, Kurth picked up the double bass in fourth grade and quickly devoted his attention to performance. He had composed a little in high school, and took serious composition lessons at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory, but always felt that writing music was more a hobby than a calling.
As a member of the New World Symphony, an elite training academy in Miami, Kurth wrote a short concerto for bass and orchestra (in “a somewhat Shostakovichy” vein, as he calls it) that conductor Michael Tilson Thomas heard and liked. Or might have liked. “It was always awkward riding in the elevator with Tilson Thomas, because you never knew what to say,” Kurth recalls. “But after the performance I was on the elevator with him and he said he liked it. Well, what he really said was that it reminded him of somebody — but I didn’t hear the name of the composer he’d mentioned.” Not sure whether the conductor’s comparison was flattering or damning, Kurth continued to focus on playing the bass; most of his interest in composition remained on the theory side of the art: the nuts and bolts and inner scaffolding of music. “Theory has always been a geeky hobby of mine,” he admits.
Only after he got involved with the ASO’s educational outreach program did composition — and an accessible new voice — emerge as a long-gestating talent. For school and children’s concerts, he was having a hard time finding music written for just a few players that involved his instrument. So he started writing his own. He clearly had a gift, says Joel Dallow, an ASO cellist who was a fellow Peabody alum and often partnered with Kurth for education concerts. “Every time we’d play something, it would get a huge response. The reaction was always very positive.”
A few years ago, Dallow’s Riverside Chamber Players, based in Roswell, commissioned Kurth to write a string quartet, “Easy Listening.” “There’s nothing we play that gets such a reception from our audience,” Dallow says. “Someone came up to me after ‘Easy Listening’ and said, ‘I didn’t know you could have a living composer and like his music.’ He taps into something that people find exciting and interesting.”
The quartet became Kurth’s golden ticket. He had regularly passed his scores on to Spano, who offered encouragement. After Spano heard a professional tape of “Easy Listening,” Kurth says, the conductor told him, “I love it.” It helped change the bass player’s mindset, and ambition.
When he heard that the ASO would commission 10 celebratory fanfares for the 2010-11 season, Kurth jumped in without invitation. With a few weeks of downtime in November and December, he wrote one, gave it a wacky name off his prescription bottle, printed the score and made a synthesized audio recording. Spano and Evans Mirageas, the ASO’s director of artistic planning, listened and approved. Because not all 10 of the original planned commissions came through, “May Cause Dizziness” received an open slot. Mirageas’ one instruction was to keep the orchestration no larger than the other works on the program, which includes a sizable ensemble for Bartok’s Third Piano Concerto.
“My style fits in with almost everything Robert says he likes about the ‘Atlanta School’ of composers,” Kurth offers. “My music is melodic, tonal, accessible, rhythmic and shows the influence of world and pop music. I’m not embarrassed by terms like ‘accessible.’ It fits what I’m after.”