Craggy, tender, passionate, witty, rough-edged, lyrical, uncompromising, Leon Kirchner's music, so like the man himself, made an indelible impression. Even in his recent appearance at a 90th-birthday tribute concert at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the old fire and wit, the frankness and the refusal to sentimentalize, were there. ("I thought wisdom came with age," he told the capacity audience, "but I was wrong.") This Pulitzer-winning composer's most ambitious work, the opera Lily (based on Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King), never got the production it deserved, but magical parts of it have been recorded and are still occasionally performed. Yet every piece, from his exhilarating early Piano Concerto, which he himself (an imposing pianist) performed and recorded (with the New York Philharmonic), to last year's equally intense and exhilarating The Forbidden, a Boston Symphony Orchestra commission, takes your breath away.
Kirchner, like composers from Bach to Boulez, was a recycler. The Forbidden was a version for full orchestra of a piano sonata he'd completed in 2003 and three years later turned into a string quartet. Still each comes across as a completely different work. Led by James Levine at the BSO, The Forbidden seemed to condense an entire Mahler symphony into 12 hair-raising minutes. The title refers to the Schoenberg-like composer in Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus. Schoenberg was Kirchner's great teacher — he studied with him at UCLA. But the young Kirchner also impressed Schoenberg's biggest rival, Igor Stravinsky, who was also living in Los Angeles. Kirchner was unique in absorbing and being inspired by both these contrary masters while always remaining himself. And no one had better stories about the great musical figures he knew.
At Harvard, where he taught for three decades, and never quite fit in, his adoring students included cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Lynn Chang, and composer John Adams. He also inaugurated an important musical series, the free Harvard Chamber Orchestra concerts, in which Kirchner led a group of remarkable freelance instrumentalists (even Ma was an occasional member) in revelatory performances — composer's performances — of unusual repertoire, both classical (he combined formal oddities by Mozart, Schumann, and Stravinsky in a program he called "divine mutants") and contemporary. And what conductor ever made the massive symphonies of Bruckner sound more buoyant, more transparent, or more charged with lightning? Like the conductor himself.
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