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Monday, September 21, 2009

Remembering Leon Kirchner

Last Friday around 1:30 in the afternoon I switched on the radio. I immediately sensed that something was wrong, since my local public radio station was untypically playing a lengthy piece of modern music. I could tell that it was "Music for Cello & Orchestra" by Leon Kirchner. It was from a well-known recording on Sony by David Zinman conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra with Yo-Yo Ma as the cello soloist.

There is an unfortunate tendency in the classical radio biz to pay special attention to the work of a contemporary composer either when they have an upcoming local performance, or when they have passed away. I was not aware of any upcoming concerts in the Boston area featuring Kirchner, but I knew that he was 90 years old and had been in poor health in recent years.

After the music concluded, the radio announcer confirmed my worst fear. Leon Kirchner died the day before at the age of 90 at his home on Central Park west in Manhattan of congestive heart failure.

It was not a total shock, given his poor health. But my sense of loss was not as much for the individual as for the passing of an entire generation of composers. The number of surviving composers who studied directly with Arnold Schoenberg has diminished to a mere hand full, and the musical aesthetics of Kirchner's generation and the music they created is regrettably becoming a fading memory in 21st century musical culture.

Not everyone is familiar with the work of Leon Kirchner (1919 - 2009), but for me he was a Boston landmark - a fixture at Harvard University for 28 years where he taught music composition and conducted the Harvard Chamber Orchestra. The Harvard Chamber Orchestra concerts at Sanders Theatre were really something. His selection of works was superb, and it often included some of his own music, or a piece by one of his students at Harvard (e.g. Three Pieces for Orchestra in 1985 by the Harvard undergraduate Eric Sawyer).

Kirchner had been an influential teacher to at least two generations of composers that I know. A lot of what I learned about him was indirect information derived from a patchwork of stories told by his students. For example composers such as Ezra Sims and Bob Ceely worked with him in the 1950s at Mills College in Oakland, California (Stravinsky had recommended Kirchner for that position).

During my student years in Boston, dozens of my composer colleagues at the New England Conservatory crossed the Charles River to work with Leon Kirchner or his arch rival the late Earl Kim (also a former student of Arnold Schoenberg) for their graduate studies at Harvard.

Kirchner's composition students at Harvard included at least two prominent composers: Richard Warnick and John Adams. However, he also taught a course in analysis and performance of chamber music, and violinist Lynn Chang ('75) and cellist Yo-Yo Ma ('76) were students in his class.

John Adams wrote recently about his former teacher in his memoir "Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life." He wrote: "I began to notice that the act of composing for him was something akin to self-immolation. I got the feeling that composing was meant to be a painful activity, a ferocious wrestling match with inner demons."

Kirchner described it himself when he said, "You keep working at it [until] it becomes a thing that really grips your whole soul. And it has to in order for it to be real music."

Kirchner left behind a worthy catalog of scores, including orchestral pieces, two piano concertos, an opera, and numerous chamber works.

His String Quartet No. 3 won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1967. Oddly, this is not among his best works. It's a piece that utilizes electronic sounds created on the Buchla synthesizer. Although he had guidance and assistance from his colleague Ivan Tcherepnin (1943 - 1998) at the Harvard Electronic Music Studio, the work does not integrate the two sound worlds very well at all. Aside from some incidental electronic sounds in Kirchner's opera Lily, I don't believe he ever worked in the electronic medium again. The score for the String Quartet No. 3 was published in color, which was a a gimmicky innovation at the time.

Aside from the Pulitzer, Kirchner received all of the major awards and memberships commonly bestowed upon composers in his league: the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the New York Critics Circle, and a Naumburg Award.

It's not the awards, but his music that interests me. I am a big fan of the majority of his work, such as: The Duo for Violin and Piano (1947), the Trio for Violin Cello and Piano (1954), his Piano Sonatas, 'Flutings' from Lily (1973), Triptych (1986/88), Concerto for Violin, Cello, Ten Winds and Percussion (1960), Five Pieces for Piano (1987), and Music for 12 (1985). His earlier music has the qualities of Béla Bartók, but later there are influences of both Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

I own the score and have studied Music for 12 in detail. I play through it often and marvel at Kirchner's harmonic language. He has a way of exploiting the material of the symmetric octatonic scales without duelling too much on them. He modulates from one area to another to create the experience of harmonic motion and contrast in his work, and creates well-defined regions of associated harmonic identity. Kirchner was also skillful at composing fast and exciting music that was rich in thematic material and always expressive. His music flows, but there is evidence of a struggle within it. His pieces to some degree hint at a tormented soul.

The demons that Kirchner wrestled with when struggling to compose music were also part of his intense personality and psychological makeup. By all accounts he was a very difficult person to associate with at times, and his commanding stature induced fear in some. He was known to have had personal frictions with a few of his colleagues. But when he got behind a issue or cause that he believed in (such a supporting a student), he was a force to recon with

I really had only one substantial face-to-face encounter with Kirchner. It was at a reception at Harvard after a new music concert sometime in the 1990s. Overcoming my shyness, I walked up to the composer and struck up a conversation. I explained that I was at the world premiere of his opera Lily at Lincoln Center in New York on Thursday evening April 28th, 1977.

We spoke about the performance, and how it was poorly received in the press. He explained that the staff conductor didn't have the ability to rehearse and conduct a new contemporary work, and he had to jump in at the last minute. He didn't recall the conductors name, but I recalled that it was probably Julius Rudel, the music director of the NY City Opera at that time.

Kirchner (left) with the cast of Lily (photo, Martha Swope - NY Times)

We talked a lot about the music in his opera, and he seemed strangely puzzled that I had such a clear memory of his music since it was performed decades earlier and had not been recorded commercially. In particular I recalled the fabulous singing of the title role by Susan Belling (who by the way is the daughter of Cantor Norman Belink). Belling was just amazing in the role of Lily as she navigated Kirchner's extended Italianesque soaring coloratura passages from memory while staying rock-solid on pitch. Her sound was penetrating in the large hall of the NY State Theatre, even in the upper balcony where I was sitting in the budget seats.

I also relayed to Krichner a funny story that has to be one of the more bizarre coincidences that ever occurred to me. The night after the world premiere of Kirchner's opera Lily, the singers and musicians had a break while another opera was performed. At that time I resided in a small NY suburban town with my parents, but often visited a local bar in the neighboring village of Hastings on the Hudson. The bar was famous for their 20-cent glasses of watered down draft beer. The noise, grunge, and generally sleazy ambiance of the pick-up joint was the price one would put up with in exchange for inexpensive night of inebriation and questionable social interaction.

In the dark and sleazy bar I bumped into an acquaintance by the name of Nicholas Evans. Nick was a friend of a friend who I knew very well from High School named Laura. I knew that Nick was a bassoonist who once performed the Stravinsky Octet live on WBAI radio with new music conductor Arthur Weissberg (also a bassoonist). But during the day, Nick worked as a carpenter. Today Nick has a business where he does bassoon repair (see his link at the bottom of this post). Anyway, Nick introduced me to his lady friend sitting on the bar stool to his left, "this is Susan" he said.

It turned out that Nick's friend was Susan Belling, the soprano who I had heard sing in Kirchner's opera Lily the evening before. She was resting her voice and decompressing over a beer with her friend after her widely anticipated premiere opera performance the night before. I suppose she just wanted to get away from the intensity of the NY scene.

Belling studied at the Chatham Square Music School (1958-60), at the Manhattan School of Music (1960-63) and at the Opera Studio of the Metropolitan Opera New York (1964-67). In 1966 she won the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. She sang an arrangement of Schoenberg's Second Quartet with Eric Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony. Her 1968 debut took place at the San Francisco Opera. A new music specialist, she sang the title role in the opera Melusine by Aribert Reimann with the Santa Fé Opera. I've heard her from time to time perform with new music ensembles, such as Speculum Musicae where she sang Henze ("Being Beauteous" on 1/8/76) and later the work of an emerging Boston composer by the name of John Harbison.

And here we were chugging beers in Hastings. It was bizarre, so bizarre that I later wrote a new work for soprano and bassoon and dedicated it to Susan and Nick, but I don't think they ever performed it.

Kirchner thought my story was humorous. But he looked looked at me with a puzzling glare, and started to inquire about my background, musical training, and connections. He seemed to be suspicious about my comprehensive knowledge about him, when he know nothing about me. "Who did you study with? Why have I never heard any of your music?" he asked.

The conversation and mood in the room shifted. I soon felt as if I was being interrogated by Kirchner about my political alliances and associations. To make matters worse, I could sense the ears and eyes of my former composition teacher in the room behind me tuning in to hear what Kirchner and I were talking about. There was plenty of paranoia to go around in those days, and that's just one reason why I dislike the fishbowl of academia.

In recent years Kirchner retired from Harvard and moved to New York. He would return to Boston on special occasions, such as the recent Boston Symphony Orchestra performance conducted by James Levine of his commissioned work The Forbidden. The piece is good, but it's basically an orchestration of an earlier work.

While I never warmed up to, studied with, or got to know the composer, I do have a great appreciation for the music of Leon Kirchner. His work has had an influence on mine, and I think we share many common ideas about the nature of new music and what it should sound like.

When a like-minded composer departs the earth, I can almost feel a slight tremble in the ground. It's as if I'm not confident that my colleagues and I can carry on the touch with the same confidence and ability that our predecessors were able to. We are losing our best of breed, and their shoes will be difficult fill.