Classsical Music Sentinel

KAREL HUSA - Orchestral Masterworks - Kimcherie Lloyd (Conductor) - Paul York (Cello) - University of Louisville Symphony - Released: November 2011 - Ablaze AR00008

1- Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra
2- Pastorale for String Orchestra
3- Scenes from The Trojan Women

Compared to his compatriots, one could say that Czech-born composer Karel Husa (b 1921) has been unjustly ignored and neglected both on the concert stage and in the recording studio. Fringe labels like CRI, First Edition, Klavier were some of the few to produce some of his music. Ablaze Records have set out here to alter the balance by presenting not one, but two world premiere recordings of some of his important orchestral works.

The Cello Concerto, the recipient of the 1993 Grawemeyer Award, received its stage premiere in 1989 with cellist Lynn Harrell, the dedicatee of the work. It is a complex and troubled piece of music, including some of the most ominous opening pages I've ever heard. This is a composer whose writing is influenced more by the emotional content and impact of the music, rather than its techniques. The cello is often pushed to the limits of its highest register, and the orchestra is often pushed to its dramatic limits. Motifs pile up to form impressive climaxes accentuated by rhythmically propulsive percussion effects, as the cello seems to sing a great lament. It's also a piece that requires the use of various techniques and a wide range of emotional involvement on the part of the soloist, and cellist Paul York is readily glad to oblige.

The Pastorale for String Orchestra, an earlier composition, paints a very different picture. It instantly brings to mind similar works for string ensembles favored by 20th century British composers. Unlike the concerto, it is bereft of anxieties and presents a warmer, somewhat more bucolic side of life. Its harmonic language is far less evolved, and strives for sincere expression rather than fearsome declamations. Its simple beauty is very well brought to the fore by the University of Louisville Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Kimcherie Lloyd.

Ablaze Records is a relatively young recording label based in Australia and the U.S. dedicated to the recording, distribution and promotion of works by living composers. If this CD is any indication, they certainly are poised to not only fulfill that mandate, but to do it right.

Jean-Yves Duperron - January 2012



Karel Husa is a name I've heard mentioned over the years, but I must admit I have not experienced much of his music to speak of until now, aside from a few examples on Louisville Records. He was born in Prague in 1921, studied with Honegger and Nadia Boulanger in Paris, came to the US in the early '50s and has resided here since, teaching at Cornell and Ithaca for many years. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for his "String Quartet No. 3."

Impressive credentials, to say the least. His music lives up to expectations. A fine recording of three orchestral works is available as Music of Life: Orchestral Masterworks (Ablaze 00008). They show a fully modernist mastery of orchestral forces and a keen inventiveness. The world premiere recordings of his "Concerto for Violincello and Orchestra" and "Pastoral for String Orchestra" are included, along with "Scenes from The Trojan Woman."

The "Pastoral" is short to the point of terseness, but engaging. The other two works are more boldly modern and dynamically enthralling with their dissonances and orchestral fireworks. This is music outside the fractured realm of Darmstadt Serialism, more sequentially unfolding and A-to-B in syntax.

The "Cello Concerto" has a very expressive, rather dark solo part played here with finesse and an excellent idiomatic sense by Paul York. The music bursts forth with firey orchestral colors and emblazoned climaxes.

"Scenes from The Trojan Woman" has some beautifully buoyant percussion and extraordinarily apocalyptic orchestral passages that show you the Husa of vivid contrasts.

All three works are impressive and the performances by the University of Louisville Symphony Orchestra under Kimcherie Lloyd sound great.

You modernist-leaning listeners out there will find this one an exemplary introduction to orchestral Husa. It is a rather blazing tribute to a composer who clearly deserves more recognition. Recommended!



Czech composer and conductor Karel Husa, a U.S. resident since 1954 and citizen since 1959, is probably most associated in this country with his lengthy tenure as professor of music at Cornell University and his work with that institution and crosstown Ithaca College. He has also had a long and fruitful association with the University of Louisville, from which this recording originates, highlighted by the commissioning of the ballet The Trojan Women in 1980 for the opening of the university’s new school of music. Earlier this year Husa, now 90, was awarded an honorary doctorate by the university.

In 1993 the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award was awarded to his Cello Concerto. The concerto was written for Lynn Harrell, who performed the work but never recorded it. It calls for huge forces, almost Mahlerian in scope, against which the cello is pitted at times, often in extremis. However, as in Mahler’s works, the orchestra is also used subtlety and even with extreme delicacy. Within its five movements, the work explores the full expressive and harmonic range of the cello, from the dark violence of the opening passage in the lowest range of the instrument, to the often ethereal lyricism of the “Remembrance” movement, to the agonized flights into extreme harmonics of the ending. I have not heard Lynn Harrell in this challenging work, but it does not seem likely that he could have been more impressive than University of Louisville faculty member Paul York.

The Pastorale for string orchestra, a 1980 commission from the American String Teacher’s Association, is a work of more modest scale and demands based on a work for violin and piano from Husa’s student years. As the title implies, it is understated and warmly expressive, in distinct contrast to its discmates, though the vistas are never completely unclouded and the chromaticism never lets the work settle too comfortably.

Scenes from The Trojan Women is a suite taken from the full-length ballet, which at its 24-minute length contains a little more than half of the full score. While the work recounts Euripides’s story of the aftermath of the Trojan defeat, Husa drew its immediacy and horror from the 1942 Nazi revenge scourging of the Czech village of Lidice: the slaughter of the men and the deportation of the women and children to concentration camps and eventual extermination. It is an emotionally draining work, relentless in its depiction of unbearable grief and terror.

Two of these are premiere recordings, and most welcome for that. The Scenes from The Trojan Women has appeared before on a Phoenix CD (reviewed in Fanfare 21:5), with the Brno State Orchestra conducted by the composer. The scenes chosen are not, however, identical to the published suite recorded here, most notably in the substitution of the Hecuba’s “Lullaby” to her grandson for the scene of his capture and killing. The entire ballet was recorded by the Louisville Orchestra not long after the 1981 premiere, and is available on the Louisville Editions label. Both previous recordings have considerable merit, and the composer’s reading lays claim to authoritativeness, but neither has the raw passion of the performance by this amazing student ensemble. The live performance on this new Ablaze release is more intense and percussive, the players more committed to and comfortable with the many modern techniques employed, and the technical execution by the University of Louisville ensemble and their conductor easily as fine as that by the two professional orchestras. The release also boasts demonstration-quality engineering throughout, an important attribute in this richly scored, highly dramatic, and exceptionally dynamic work. It and the release as a whole come most highly recommended.
Ronald E. Grames


Karel Husa was born in Prague in 1921. He studied there at first, moving to Paris later to work with Arthur Honegger, Nadia Boulanger, and André Cluytens. After World War II he immigrated to the United States and, in 1959, became an American citizen. Ten years later, he won a Pulitzer Prize for a string quartet and, in 1993, he won a Grawemeyer Prize for his cello concerto. Now, at age 90, he is living comfortably in retirement. Husa wrote his cello concerto in 1989, but only four of its five movements were played at its premiere. Possibly because the composer is not a cellist, his third section, called “Anecdote,” had to be revised before it could be performed. The entire piece was given in 1991. It’s a fascinating work that does not court the nonchalant listener. It is overtly belligerent with its percussion and brass, but under the able direction of conductor Kimcherie Lloyd, the sound of Paul York’s cello is never overpowered and can always be heard playing expressive harmonies together with the various clusters of orchestral instruments. Between this hard-packed concerto and the tragic suite from The Trojan Women, we hear Husa’s Pastorale, which is a perfect buffer. Soft-edged and comforting, this lush, moderately difficult piece was commissioned by the American String Teachers Association and first performed in 1980. To construct it, Husa took material from a sonatina that he wrote during his student days in Europe. He remolded it by means of a polished and somewhat unusual orchestration.

Husa’s scenes from The Trojan Women are ballet music that gives a stark description of war and its effects on the inhabitants of a city. It is timeless, actually, although Husa uses his memories of the destruction of a Czech village during World War II as a basis for the work. He starts with percussion and military sounds but eventually arrives at the lamentations and dismay of those who have lost both family and the most necessary of possessions. Husa’s thoughtful work reproduces the ambience of war and its sad aftermath. He uses a large percussion section, stark chords, and even microtones to lift listeners out of their comfort zones and mentally transport them to a place where violence has occurred. Despite this use of modern techniques, his music is very accessible and most descriptive of the story of the ballet. The University of Louisville Symphony Orchestra plays all of these complex sonorities precisely and with seeming ease. Conductor Lloyd has numerous forces at her command and she directs them all with great finesse. Her tempi move the piece forward while its strong rhythmic underpinnings keep the tension taut. She maintains the tension to the end, when the gloom lifts and you get the feeling that the spiritual power of these women will allow them to overcome the horror of captivity. There are earlier recordings of this work by the Brno State Orchestra conducted by the composer and by the Louisville Orchestra under Akira Endo, but they are considerably older, and for that reason they offer less than optimum sound quality.
Maria Nockin



Karel Husa has been a particular favorite composer of mine ever since I first heard his Music for Prague back in my student days at Indiana University. From the moment I heard it, I realized I was listening to a contemporary masterwork, a description that I came to apply to many of Husa’s works, as I became familiar with them. Thus it was with particular pleasure that I received the present disc, containing three of the composer’s seminal works. I don’t know if this nonagenarian composer is still writing music (the most recent work I can find on the list of his compositions on Wikipedia has a date of 2008), but if he has ceased, he may rest assured that his place as one of the most important composers of his generation is secure.

The program opens with the Cello Concerto, completed in 1989 and winner of the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition in 1993. The opening of this work is most novel: The entire cello section of the orchestra begins a wandering solo line in the lowest part of the cello’s range. As its members gradually wend their way upwards, the soloist, quite imperceptibly at first, begins to take over the line, such that by the time he reaches the notes on the A-string (the highest string on the cello), the orchestral players have dropped out. The austere wandering line yields to an equally austere figuration that takes the soloist over the entire range of his instrument. The orchestral support is fairly light, as is necessary for any accompaniment of this none-too-penetrating solo instrument, but is rich in interesting percussive interjections by instruments such as temple blocks. Husa’s approach to writing for the cello is quite non-conventional beyond the opening. There is, for instance, an entire movement of pizzicato, rarely heard to this extent in any solo string work. There are several staccato interjections from the trombones in this passage that give the pizzicato a unique coloration. The form of the work is also unique: There are five connected movements (“Introduction,” “Recitative,” “Anecdote,” “Remembrance,” and “Hymn”), the pivotal third of which is the pizzicato movement. “Remembrance” is a doleful and sometimes anguished lament, suggesting that whatever the composer is remembering was not a pleasant event. The “Hymn,” the longest movement of the Concerto, is certainly not something you’d sing in church, but is a busy and turgid movement, very similar in style to the movement that preceded it. Sonorities are astringent throughout this Concerto, but by no means intolerable to those who have had their ears tuned by the music of the 20th century. This complex work presents a classic case of a profound piece of music that will not yield all of its secrets on a single hearing.

More accessible to the musical novice is the 1980 Pastorale for string orchestra, commissioned for that year’s American String Teacher’s Association convention. Also unlike the Cello Concerto, the technical demands of this work seem to be relatively modest, and it draws upon musical material that the young composer utilized in his 1944 Sonatina for Violin and Piano. This five-minute work is occasionally disquieting, but mostly direct in its appeal, and is generally subdued in spirit in keeping with its title.

Husa’s ballet The Trojan Women, based on the ancient play by Euripides, was commissioned as part of the opening ceremonies of the new University of Louisville School of Music building in 1980–81, making it nearly contemporaneous with the preceding piece. If I’m not mistaken (I no longer have my integral Louisville LP set), the complete ballet was recorded by the Louisville Orchestra in its long-lived project to record noteworthy contemporary works, but the half-hour’s worth of excerpts herein included represent a substantial portion of the work. Husa draws heavily upon drums and percussion in this exciting work, the tonality of which is only one notch less astringent than that of the Cello Concerto. It’s a powerful piece, and I would love to see the choreographed version of the work.

The students of the University of Louisville acquit themselves on an entirely professional level throughout, with particular kudos going to the percussion section of the orchestra. Cellist Paul York handles his extremely virtuosic solo part seemingly effortlessly, and confidently evokes the many moods inherent in the work. Conductor Kimcherie Lloyd does a superb job in propelling the music forward and keeping the many complexities well organized. Both artists serve on the faculty of the University. This Ablaze CD is well recorded, and my only (minor) quibble is that there were only two pages devoted to program notes. This music demands more, but this CD is an all-around tribute to the artistic excellence to be found at this school. I would like to see more CDs of this sort issued of under- or un-recorded music by university and college forces. In two words, then: highly recommended.
—David DeBoor Canfield