Obituary: Efrem Kurtz

Noel Goodwin
Friday 14 July 1995 23:02

A tall, imposing figure in front of an orchestra, so tall that he often dispensed with the usual conductor's podium, Efrem Kurtz had a graceful, baton-less technique that drew a fluid yet well-controlled response from the players and infused a vivid poetry into romantic music in particular. Much sought after in the music of his native Russia, and in the ballet music in which he first made his name conducting Anna Pavlova, Kurtz was a link back to the musical life of pre-revolutionary St Petersburg.

His grandfather had been conductor of the Russian Imperial Court Orchestra, his two brothers and sister achieved musical distinction and so from an early age Kurtz was surrounded by music. In due course he entered the St Petersburg Conservatory, where his teachers included the composers Alexander Glazunov and Nikolay Tcherepnin. Here he stayed until, foreseeing the possible consequences of increasing political unrest, he left suddenly and fled to Riga with some money he had filched from home. Any recriminations this may have caused were forgotten when he was later reunited with his family in Berlin after they too left St Petersburg.

Kurtz spent some time at Riga University, went on to Berlin, where he resumed his studies at the Stern Conservatory and, with conducting in view, became a student of Arthur Nikisch at Leipzig.

In 1921, Nikisch fell ill and Kurtz was summoned to replace him for a programme by the American modern-dance pioneer Isadora Duncan. Kurtz treated it as if it were a musical concert and received glowing notices for his share in the performances.

Conducting engagements in Berlin and elsewhere were offered and brought him in due course to the Stuttgart Philharmonic, where he became the conductor from 1924 to 1933.

During this time the ballerina Anna Pavlova invited him to open her Covent Garden season in 1928. Thereafter he went on an annual world tour with her, including Australia and South America, until her premature death in 1931. Kurtz always carried a Russian gold coin which she gave him as a talisman shortly before she died.

Warned of danger from the Gestapo in Germany, Kurtz fled to Paris, this time penniless. He briefly sold tea until one of the companies which succeeded Diaghilev's former Ballet Russe offered him a fresh opportunity as an extra conductor; he became their principal when two other conductors failed to get visas for a forthcoming British tour.

As music director for what was to become the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Kurtz was a regular visitor to London from 1934. He also conducted premieres of celebrated ballets by Fokine, Massine and Balanchine in Europe and in America, where he settled during the Second World War (he took American citizenship in 1944).

He left the ballet in 1941 to develop his concert work and became Music Director of the Kansas City Symphony (1943-47) and the Houston Symphony (1948-54), raising the standards and wider prestige of both orchestras.

His next conducting appointment was in Liverpool, where he conducted the Philharmonic in 1954 and, when a dispute involving Paul Kletzki left them conductorless at short notice, Kurtz accepted an invitation to become, with John Pritchard, their Joint Music Director for two seasons in 1957, when Kurtz left to further a freelance career. He travelled widely, and in 1966 gave concerts in Moscow and what was then Leningrad in his first return to his native country since 1919.

Kurtz was less widely experienced in opera, although he was engaged in the pre-war Salzburg festivals in 1931-32, and from the late 1960s for the next decade he worked on opera again in Rome and Milan. His most successful gramophone recordings were usually with the Philharmonia in Britain or the New York Philharmonic, the 3 million sales of which brought him a Gold Disc in 1953.

Those recordings, now transferred to CD, testify to the conductor's skill in holding in expressive balance the qualities of vitality and sensitivity, best exemplified in a two-disc set, Efrem Kurtz - a Profile, where the First Symphonies of both Prokofiev and Shostakovitch have a vivid freshness and, among other shorter Russian works, four exquisite miniatures by Liadov reveal a sense of poetic fancy that haunts the ear.

Efrem Kurtz, conductor: born St Petersburg 7 November 1900; married three times; died London 27 June 1995.

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