Kurt Erickson was 4 years old when his family got a fairly good indication of the path his life would take: A life devoted to music, in which his most recent accomplishment is being named composer-in-residence for San Francisco’s Lieder Alive!
At 4, he was visiting his grandparents’ home, and the adults were watching “The Lawrence Welk Show.” He went to the piano and “plunked out” the song being performed on television, “Way Down Upon the Swanee River.”
In that instant, his family knew Erickson had inherited his grandfather’s talent and “musical ear.” His Italian immigrant grandfather could play any song on the piano simply by hearing it, without the need to read musical notes. And so could “little” Erickson.
His parents bought a piano and got Erickson into piano lessons with a neighborhood teacher. Besides taking piano lessons, Erickson was involved with sports and had a “normal childhood.”
By the time he was in high school, Erickson knew he needed to study piano at a more advanced level, and said he was “very fortunate” to find Philip Lorenz, a Fresno State teacher.
“He was an international figure,” Erickson said of Lorenz. “He was the musical equivalent of Picasso — a genius. His students came from other countries; some didn’t even enroll in college. I was the local kid, one of the few local kids that studied from him.”
Unfortunately, during Erickson’s junior year, his dynamic teacher was diagnosed with cancer and died. Devastated by the loss, Erickson continued his graduate studies with pianist William Cerny at the University of Notre Dame and composition at Mills College with Pauline Oliveros and Alvin Curran.
“I’m a musical omnivore. I grew up listening to “pop and rock on the radio just like everyone else,” Erickson said. “I like jazz — everything.”
In spite of his eclectic music tastes, many of his early opportunities focused on sacred music. As a young composer, Erickson served as composer-in-residence for San Francisco Grace Cathedral, St. Mary the Virgin, and St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley.
Then he was composer-in-residence at the National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi where his sacred choral music was commissioned, performed and recorded by the professional ensemble Schola Cantorum San Francisco.
Erickson, now 44, has composed music and performed for a wide range of chamber ensembles, orchestras, choruses, opera, sacred music institutions, solo performers, ballet companies, colleges and universities.
He also teaches young composers music theory, history and piano classes at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento, and has formed a music composition club at the college.
“In my life, the way I approach art is you learn by doing,” Erickson said. “Whether you are a young dancer or musician — just do it. I believe in students learning composition early.”
“A career in the arts is certainly not for the faint of heart,” he cautions aspiring composers and musicians.
“There’s not a lot of security, and it is difficult to make your mark. There’s a tremendous amount of dedication and delayed gratification, and just plain stubbornness involved,” he continued. “It is also important to have mentors.”
As a father of two Canyon Oaks Elementary school students, Erickson enjoys working with young people. He has written ballet scores for ballet workshops in San Francisco as well as Napa.
He fondly remembers his own children playing something on the piano and then saying, “Dad, write that down.” He wrote the song, “Stars” for his children.
Although his work takes him to San Francisco and Sacramento, Erickson loves living in the Napa Valley. “Napa is gorgeous, and it’s incredibly inspiring to work and create here,” Erickson said. “If I need to meet or rehearse with a fellow musician, I find that colleagues are more than happy to drive up, even if it is slightly less convenient.”
“Everyone knows the familiar stereotype of the suffering artist, but the truth is — we work better when we’re happy and inspired,” he continued. “Napa is a very special and inspiring place to live.”
In the summer of 2013, Erickson was selected as San Francisco’s Lieder Alive!’s current composer-in-residence.
“It is an incredible honor to serve a composer residency where an organization makes a significant commitment to you and your music for an extended period of time,” Erickson said.
“This is a luxury most composers would kill for,” he continued. “Not only does it give you the space and time to create new works, it allows you the opportunity to develop a relationship with the organization and its principal performers.
Lieder, a form of German music developed during the Romanticism of the 19th century, were popularized by Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann, Erickson explained.
Lieder Alive! hosts singers who have sung at the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, and on opera stages across the country. They regularly partner with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, San Francisco Opera, and the German Consulate in performances, master classes and guests lectures.
In addition to writing new compositions, Erickson is also overseeing a Neue Lieder Commissioning Program, inviting guest composers to contribute new works to the genre in the creation of a Neue Lieder Songbook.
“The Lieder tradition of the 19th century is incredibly rich,” said Erickson. “There’s an overabundance of really interesting pieces that singer’s love, so adding to this repertoire can be a little daunting. Every generation wants to make it new, to reflect and communicate what it’s like to live in the here and now.”
With everything written in German, Erickson uses the help a German native speaking friend and browses through 19th-, 20th- and 21st-century German poetry books for inspiration.
Erickson is developing educational programing for young composers through a partnership with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Programing includes workshops and one-on-one coaching, and will conclude in a professional public performance.