Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

CULTURE & ARTS Leon Kirchner's 80th Birthday
Celebrated by His Students
AUFBAU 65:5 March 5, 1999 p. 13
826 wds
Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU

On January 24, 1969, Harvard Radio presented a four-hour orgy on tape of works by the Brooklyn-born Los Angeles-reared composer of Russian-Jewish descent, Leon Kirchner (pronounced "Kershner," not "Keerkhner"), in honor of his 50th birthday.

In the succeeding three decades, his devoted former student at Mills College (where Kirchner had taught prior to coming to Harvard in 1961), the pianist Cheryl Seltzer, together with her co-director of Continuum, Joel Sachs, has presented three Kirchner concerts: at Columbia in 1977, at Alice Tully Hall in honor of his 70th birthday in 1989, and most recently at Merkin Hall, honoring his 80th this year.

In her program notes, Seltzer asked rhetorically: "What forces in Kirchner and his music have attracted celebrity solo performers and music organizations small and large over the years?" In many ways the concert did provide "ample answer."

Great Power in the Music

There is great power in this music, which bespeaks a thorough assimilation of at least three admirable elements: the passionate intensity of Ernest Bloch, the intellectual rigor of Arnold Schoenberg, and the high-minded elegance of Roger Sessions, all of whom were Kirchner's teachers.

Several of Kirchner's own most illustrious composition students (who also happen to be Jewish) proudly celebrated with him-- Stanley Silverman, Jonathan Kramer, Faye-Ellen Silverman, among others. John Adams, who owed his earliest compositional successes to Kirchner's encouragement and generosity in inviting him to participate at the Marlboro Music Festival, was not present.

For this writer, Kirchner's most successful compositions are his two Piano Concerti of 1953 and 1963, Bergian cries of the heart that sear and soar when played with a commitment such as the composer and the pianist Leon Fleisher have given them, along with his Sonata Concertante which the composer himself premiered with violinist Tossy Spivakovsky at Carnegie Hall in 1952. The latter was the oldest work presented at Merkin, in an industrious and expressive performance by violinist Renee Jolles with Ms. Seltzer at the piano, positively playful in the solo passagework.

The most recent work on the program, the 1995 piano solo "For the Left Hand," written for Mr. Fleisher, who had lost the full use of his right hand, is a sentimental mix of Bloch and Scriabin, and was given a musing reading by Mr. Sachs.

Ms. Jolles and Ms. Seltzer were joined by cellist Dorothy Lawson in a bravura performance of the Trio #2 (1993), a triumph of gorgeous string writing--often in octave doubling--abounding in ninth chords, almost veering toward the Straussian (with Wagner, Mahler, and Bach acknowledged as influences). The work is certainly complete in its single sweeping, continuous movement. (Re his 1954 Trio #1, in two movements, cellist Benar Heifetz used to kid the composer: "So when are you going to write the third movement?")

[Less Satisfying] Program Music Somewhat less satisfying was the program music presented. "The Twilight Stood," a 1982 cycle of six songs on Emily Dickinson texts, was sung continuously, with just two pauses, by soprano Nancy Allen Lundy, methodically accompanied by Joel Sachs.

Ms. Lundy is a fine singer. But the brutal demands of the setting, on ungrateful vowels high above the staff, presented a choice between clarity of tone and clarity of diction necessitating screeching. Inspired perhaps by the program notes' description of the poems as not only "eloquent" but "shattering," Ms. Lundy screeched.

The 1966 String Quartet #3 was Kirchner's only work to use electronic sound, though he also used voices on tape in his only opera, Lily, which was 18 years in its genesis and died onstage at New York City Opera in 1977. It was the quartet, with its Buchla Synthesizer-produced tape-track created with the assistance of Morton Subotnick, that won Kirchner a Pulitzer Prize. Today the work is best heard as a period piece, written before many of its sounds became commercialized into pin-ball cliches.


The gifted young Finnish flutist Ulla Suokko-Hixson opened the concert with the solo "Flutings," a fragment from Lily.

All manner of flutings could heard at Hofstra last weekend, in a workshop and recital given by Patricia Spencer, the latter entitled "A Flute Is Not A Bird," concluding with an encore from Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals, to assert, contrariwise, that indeed "the flute can sometimes be a bird!"

Ms. Spencer was joined by five Hofstra faculty members in works by C.P.E. Bach, Poulenc, Thea Musgrave, Judith Shatin, Albert Tepper (who was present and took a bow), and Chandler Carter (who was not only present, but provided a bit of commentary as well). The Tepper "Toy Flute" was given a glittering performance; it should really be a ballet. Mr. Carter's Five Bagatelles climax in a bang-up ending for #4; perhaps #5 would have been better placed at the beginning. The two women's pieces came across as more aggressive than any of the men's, combining singing and digital delay, among other extended techniques.

photo: Helene Williams
caption: Composer Leon Kirchner (middle) with his former students Faye-Ellen Silverman and Leonard Lehrman

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