NEW YORK – Composer and violinist Elektra Kurtis and Ensemble Elektra have released their latest CD, “Bridges from the East,” which is inspired by her belief that although the sources of the diverse music they present are separated geographically, it is all connected by human spirit, emotion, ethics, and expression.
The new CD comes straight out of the composer’s Greek heritage, and her life experiences in distinct parts of the world as a member of a family of Greek refugees from Egypt that settled in Poland, and as a musician in her adopted home of New York.
The piece reflect the sound of Eastern Europe and North Africa, cultures Kurtis relates to the most, and the ensemble has been presenting the CD’s selection at venues throughout New York, including Kosciuszko Foundation and the Goddard Riverside Community Center in Harlem.
The latter was hosted by Kevin Nathaniel, curator of the Afro Roots Tuesdays free music series.
With the 14th anniversary of the terrible day approaching, Kourtis began the Harlem concert with “2002” – symbolizing the first full year of rebuilding after 9/11.
2002, with its poignant string quartet-like opening, reflected Kourtis classical training – audiences will recognize bits of Bartok, Stravinsky, and Bach in her music.
Each of the musicians had multiple moments to shine, including Lefteris Bournias, Reggie Nicholson, Brad Jones, and Curtis Stewart, Kourtis’ son.
During all her concerts, Kourtis weaves commentary into the musical presentation. She intrigued the Harlem audience with her description of rebetika as “the Greek blues,” and talked about the essence of the unique Greek character – the manga.
“Café in Old Square,” from her 2019 CD “Cutting Through,” evokes the cafés that are found in all cities where people can gather and talk, she said. An agitated beginning mirrors the storm and stress of daily life for the working poor and rushed middle classes everywhere.
The piece illustrates the psychological dimension of Kourtis’ work.
She calls “Café” a layer cake because every instrument can interchange the four melody lines.
“Each time we play the piece it sounds different because the musicians pick different lines…just like in every discussion we change our tone or point of view reflecting our mood that day.”
The shifts within Kourtis’ pieces are intriguing, again reflecting her life and heritage. The song “Waves” from the CD “Aphrodite’s’ Smile”, was inspired by watching waves come and go on the beach in Naxos.
There is a subtle change in the rhythm – the beat remains the classic modern Greek 5/4 – from a more Hellenic flavor to a Calypso form. Marengue-style strings add more ethnic flavoring.
“Tsamiko” – a longtime favorite of Kourtis’ Greek fans – is a unique rendition of the traditional Greek dance tune accented by jazzy chords.
Kourtis was delighted to tell the audience that “9 For Curtis” was one of her first compositions, inspired by her son. The lilting melody and catchy beat capture the spirit of Curtis, who now towers over her, when he was a baby.
Some of her compositions aim at the soul, not just the ears, and “Her goal is to integrate all the musical traditions and styles she has experienced throughout her life,” according to a release.
She accomplishes that both through the mastery of the techniques of composition and her passion for music and the world’s cultures.
Bournias’ sometimes soulful, sometimes wild contribution on clarinet enhances the Greek feel of some of her songs – but there is more: gypsy frenzy, African drum beats with rising and falling volumes and variations in velocity, and other elements.
The dancing in the aisles that broke out was inevitable – and the Hellenes in the seats were thrilled.