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A star rises in the twilight

At the end of a long career, Leon Kirchner is composing with new energy and attracting new notice.

October 29, 2006|Allan M. Jalon | Special to The Times

New York — ASK Leon Kirchner about Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, both of whom he knew as a young composer and pianist in the Los Angeles of the 1930s and '40s, and he gazes dramatically upward and says: "These people were from some other planet, while I just live on Earth."

Then come the stories, flowing in a barely controlled torrent that some say resembles his music -- how Stravinsky called to compliment an early piece and invite him to dine, Stravinsky who wrote "orchestration like no other, in terms that were very enormously physical, sensual, like an animal."

The best tales about Schoenberg, with whom Kirchner studied at UCLA, are the briefest: Kirchner visited his teacher's house on Rockingham Avenue ("near where O.J. lived!") and the master flipped through a score by Mahler, a visual "blaze of black notes and white stretches that showed how important it is to group notes and instruments in families, a lesson in orchestration."

But urged to talk about the upsurge of work that finds him, at age 87, the subject of renewed interest by musicians and critics, Kirchner puts in a rest. "I prefer to listen," he says, shakily unfolding his tall frame from a sofa, heading to a stack of audio gear. He slips in an unreleased recording of his Piano Sonata No. 2, newly completed in this casually spacious New York apartment where we sit.

Think of a dangerously stormy day with breaks of gray clarity. It's Rachmaninoff meets Bartok, or Scriabin meets Berg. Or forget others and imagine an often rhapsodic yet unsentimental modernism with "an intense interweaving of material and a lot of very quick changes of character in which each moment is so deeply considered that there are times when it is the same idea, but in each case it is happening differently," as Jeremy Denk, the young pianist whose performance we're hearing, says of playing this piece.

When it ends, the composer looks up and states, with a sense of hard-won factuality: "I'm writing better music than I ever have before."

The challenges of old age -- his ailing heart, sleepless nights, a bruising fall recently -- have been joined by muses bearing gifts. The five or six major pieces Kirchner has written with his sometimes manic perfectionism -- once or twice blowing commission deadlines, badgered by musical friends to finish -- could well add up to a renewed claim for his place as a leading American composer.

It's a Kirchner season in New York and elsewhere. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center has started a selective overview of Kirchner's career, culminating in a program of all four string quartets on March 7, when the Orion String Quartet will give the new one its New York premiere. His Piano Sonata No. 3 will have its world premiere in Cambridge, Mass., performed by pianist Joel Fan, Nov. 11, and the new CD of his piano works is due out from Albany Records.

At the same time, Kirchner has found promising younger musicians and established older ones (he wrote a cello concerto for Yo-Yo Ma, who talks about his former Harvard professor's "rabidly fertile imagination" and his "immense impact on my life") who are making his music a cause. All this for a man who, though he never lacked for success -- he won a Pulitzer in 1967, taught at Harvard from 1961 to 1989, played a key role at the important Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont -- has never quite made the composers' all-star team with other old guys like Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt, or younger ones like John Adams (one of his Harvard students) and Philip Glass.

There's even a love story here. Starting in 2001, three years after both their spouses died, Kirchner began sharing an apartment with Sarah Wardwell, member of a prominent New York family. Sally, as she's known to Ma, flutist Paula Robison and others in Kirchner's circle, is a retired teacher of classical languages and, at 70, a younger woman. Many who know them credit their mutual affection and her support for his regathering of forces.

Late winter looks a lot like spring on Planet Kirchner.

A perfectionist

"COMPLEXITY" is a favorite Kirchner word, whether he talks about the music of a fellow composer or the state of his life these days. He tires easily, speaking with a strained softness of wishing he could go for a walk through the autumnal lushness of Central Park, though his health prevents it. "I'm very depressed," he says at one point, but within seconds he visibly pulls his mood up to a level of sheer pleasure at the chance to share a story or insight about writing, playing and -- he is almost prouder of this than anything -- a lifetime of teaching of music.

Born in Brooklyn in 1919, Kirchner moved to Los Angeles with his Russian-Jewish parents at the age of 9 because his father, a dressmaker who had a shop at 9th and Los Angeles streets, had asthma. A self-described "impulsive ... emotional" young man, he took in the energies of a city charged with the presence of Hitler refugees who brought European influences to life.

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