A great artist can manifest answers to otherwise perplexing aspects of our world through their craft and help us find understanding. Composer, author, and long-time PARMA artist Michael G. Cunningham (1937-2022) was the embodiment of this truth, a prolific artist whose timeless body of work will resonate for years to come. Today, we reflect on his life and his contributions to our artistic ethos.

From symphonies and other orchestral works to piano pieces, art songs, opera, choral compositions, and works for jazz ensembles spanning 11 Navona Records releases, Cunningham showed an unwavering dedication to sharing his music with the world. PARMA Recordings CEO Bob Lord shared with us a first-hand account of Cunningham’s passion.

“I worked closely with Michael for nearly 17 years, and he’s been such a big part of my life for so long that I struggle to find the right words to say how much I miss him already. I remember a number of years ago we were listening to a first edit of his music— we were in his living room and the volume was up. The look on his face was so content and calm, yet so inquisitive and mesmerized, simultaneously impressed and proud and humble, cognizant of everything at that moment. Michael’s love of music and art was as pure as any I’ve ever encountered.

Bob Lord, PARMA CEO

Upon receiving his doctorate from Indiana University, Cunningham embarked on an artistic journey that would lead him to write over 250 musical compositions spanning multiple genres, pedagogical music books, and more.

Cunningham began his music career in earnest as an accompanist, music director, and instructor at Wayne State University. As a pianist early in his career he accompanied singers on stage, performed in Detroit area night clubs and country clubs, and for a while worked on a cruise ship. However, composition was his true labor of love, and he focused on creating a large catalog of music during his life that could be applied to numerous orchestrations.

Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra.

Sessions with the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra Recording Cunningham’s work.

After working as a professor of theory and composition at the University of Wisconsin — Eau Claire for over 30 years, Cunningham shifted his attention to composing full time, and would go on to have his works performed on a global scale by notable orchestras like the Moravian Philharmonic, Zagreb Festival Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, and the Prague Symphony.

Cunningham made his Navona Records debut in 2009 with COLONNADE, a gripping first impression with symphonic arias and other characteristics that immediately made the composer stand out from the crowd.

COLONNADE - album cover

COLONNADE

Cunningham employs the dexterity of the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra and the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra in his Navona Records debut, COLONNADE.

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In addition to his orchestral voice, Cunningham had a knack for expressing his artistic visions through choral ensembles. His 2016 release WISDOM-LOVE-ETERNITY explores the spiritual element of the human condition, addressing the uncertainty of death, the inexpressible emotion of love, and humans’ search for an understanding of God with the Kühn Choir of Prague.

WISDOM-LOVE-ETERNITY - album cover

WISDOM-LOVE-ETERNITY

WISDOM-LOVE-ETERNITY explores the spiritual element of the human condition, addressing the uncertainty of death, the inexpressible emotion of love, and humans’ search for an understanding of God.

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Prolific in his expressive use of narrative when writing, Cunningham told stories that intertwine darkness and beauty with breathtaking melody and harmony in MEZZANINE SEAT. An inherent understanding of the various orchestral sections is exhibited in this album, filling out every bit of space and fostering the feeling of having the best seat in the house for listeners.

MEZZANINE SEAT - album cover

MEZZANINE SEAT

MEZZANINE SEAT exhibits a mastery over all aspects of the orchestra, filling out every bit of space with breathtaking melody and harmony. The arrangements emote a sophistication that echoes J.S. Bach, one of Cunningham’s greatest inspirations.

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Cunningham’s repertoire, while technically demanding for its performers, remained easily accessible for listeners’ enjoyment, a delicate balance requiring finesse to achieve. Nestled in style between early Prokofiev and late Shostakovich, his last release, PROSCENIUM MOMENTS, provides a bird’s eye view of his dynamic catalog.

PROSCENIUM MOMENTS - album cover

PROSCENIUM MOMENTS

A highly challenging collection of Cunningham’s orchestral compositions, PROSCENIUM MOMENTS provides a bird’s eye view of the composer’s catalog.

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In addition to an expansive legacy of repertoire, Cunningham leaves us with a reminder that if you love something, there are no limits to how far you can go.

To explore more of Cunningham’s catalog, visit his artist page on Navona Records.