Distinguished in performances of both the ballet and symphonic repertories, Efrem Kurtz lived for nearly an entire century. Leaving Russia in the aftermath of the revolution, he soon established himself as a quick study and conductor of sound musicianship. Trained in the works of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Kurtz was an equally persuasive interpreter of the major works of his own time. After acquiring United States citizenship during WWII, he served two American orchestras, noticeably improving the performing standards of both.
Kurtz studied at the Conservatory in his native St. Petersburg prior to the revolution, working with such instructors as Alexander Glazunov, Nicolai Tcherepnin, and Jazeps Vitols. After the change of regime, he transferred his academic pursuits first to Riga, then to Berlin. His conducting debut was a last-minute affair; when Artur Nikisch became ill, Kurtz deputized for him in directing the orchestra in a performance for dancer Isadora Duncan. His mastery of the situation led to his being given three concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic.
During the ensuing two years, Kurtz was in demand throughout Germany, his engagements taking him to more than 40 cities. In 1924, he was hired as music director of the Stuttgart Philharmonic where he remained for nine seasons. In addition, he was given oversight over all musical broadcasting in southern Germany. When another famous dancer, Anna Pavlova, attended a Stuttgart concert in 1927, she was impressed enough to engage Kurtz for a short season in London and, later, for a South American tour. During the latter, Kurtz conducted symphonic concerts in both Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. Kurtz continued to conduct for Pavlova until her death in 1931, accompanying her on an Australian tour as well.
In 1930 and 1931, Kurtz was invited to the Salzburg Festival to conduct concerts devoted to the music of Handel. For eight years, beginning in 1933, Kurtz served as music director for the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, touring extensively with that company throughout Europe and the United States. A half-year was spent conducting symphonic concerts in Australia in 1939, Sydney and Melbourne sharing Kurtz between them. A series of guest performances with the New York Philharmonic that same year led to an invitation for further appearances in 1940.
In the 1940s, Kurtz began to work in motion pictures, conducting the scores to such feature films as Escape Me Never whose music was provided by William Walton, and the Orson Welles production of Macbeth with musical score by Jacques Ibert. During this same period, Kurtz also conducted the scores of several Ballets Russes productions being preserved on film.
In 1943, Kurtz became the music director of the Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra, sharpening the performance capability of that ensemble and expanding its repertory. He held his directorship there until 1947. Kurtz next assumed the musical directorship of the Houston Symphony Orchestra in 1948 and continued in that capacity until 1954, accomplishing much the same improvement as he had managed in Kansas City. From 1955 to 1957, Kurtz undertook a joint directorship with John Pritchard of the Liverpool Philharmonic, and from 1957 until his retirement, he accepted engagements on a freelance basis. Returning to Russia in 1966 for the first time since it had become the Soviet Union, he conducted successful concerts in both Leningrad and Moscow. Kurtz undertook several opera house projects, conducting, among other places, in Milan and Rome.
He was married to flutist Elaine Shaffer.