Leon Kirchner, Music for Cello and Orchestra

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Music U., performed on April 19, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born January 24, 1919, in Brooklyn
Died September 17, 2009 in New York City
Composed in 1992
Premiered on October 16, 1992 by Yo-Yo Ma and the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by David Zinman
Performance Time: Approximately 19 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 3 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 4 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (xylophone, glockenspiel, bongos, chimes, snare drum, tenor drum, suspended cymbal, tambourine, vibraphone, wood blocks, claves, temple blocks, antique cymbals, bass drum, tamtam), 1 piano, 1 celesta, 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, 6 double basses, and solo cello

For twenty-eight years (1961–89), Leon Kirchner—a brilliant pianist and conductor as well as composer—was professor of composition at Harvard University, where he held the chair previously occupied by Walter Piston. Arnold Schoenberg’s former student thus became the teacher of, among others, John Adams, who writes in his 2008 autobiography, Hallelujah Junction: ‟Kirchner was one of the most intuitive musicians I ever encountered…[He] could never find a way to make his own musical instincts fit into the straitjacket of a rigorous method.” Elsewhere, Adams commented: ‟What makes his music lasting in my mind are those great exploding arches of counterpoint and the erotic lushness of the harmonies.”

Both of those features are strongly in evidence in Music for Cello and Orchestra, a piece Kirchner wrote for Yo-Yo Ma, who was another former student of his. The commission came from the Philadelphia Orchestra and was underwritten by the noted homebuilder and environmental activist Maurice Barbash and his wife, the well-known New York music patron Lillian Barbash, in honor of their 40th wedding anniversary. The first performance was given by the Philadelphia Orchestra under David Zinman’s direction, with Ma as the soloist, on October 16, 1992.

Although the cello is clearly the protagonist, it is sometimes treated as part of the orchestra, or one in a group of soloists that frequently includes a solo violin. There is nearly always more than one melodic line going on at the same time, confirming Adams’ observation about Kirchner’s use of counterpoint. As far as the lush harmonies are concerned, they range from dense atonal chromaticism to unabashedly Romantic sounds that at one point evoke distinct Wagnerian memories.

These two worlds, a harsher and a gentler one, seem to be directly contrasted throughout the piece, as if engaged in a struggle for dominance. At the end, Romanticism emerges victorious with some ethereal cello harmonics to which the English horn adds one last lyrical counterpoint.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard College.