Remembering Leon Kirchner: Talmudic Dedication

When I was informed of the passing of Leon Kirchner last week at age 90, my response was one of disbelief. I soon discovered when communicating with other mutual friends that this was a shared feeling. Yes I know, he had a “long, productive life,” “a good ride,” etc. But what a life force—and to the very end.

My relationship with Kirchner began in 1960 when a friend—Barbara Field, a publicist for the Boston Symphony—invited me to dinner in order to meet him. Leon was in Boston to conduct the BSO in one of his works and had agreed to teach at Tanglewood that summer. Barbara suggested I bring some of my music for Leon to peruse with the aim of seeing if he would accept me as a student at both Tanglewood and Mills College.

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Leon Kirchner and Stanley Silverman (with broken arm*) at Tanglewood, summer 1960. (*The Tanglewood stair collapsed. Their insurance settlement paid for my Grad school.)

I remember him saying, “OK, but you are going to have to work very hard. Tell your parents that may mean on shabbas too!” Then he asked me what my aims were. I remember, to this day, answering: “Well, I just LOVE Rodgers and Hart (I still do) and would like to write a musical comedy.” Leon shot back: “You are still going to have to work hard, expand your technique and then you will be able to write a better musical comedy.”

The experience at Mills was amazing: studies with Leon and Darius Milhaud. Socially it was pure Woody Allen—a boy from The Bronx thrust into a Bay Area women’s college. (The Graduate School was co-ed. There were three of us guys, one married.) Leon’s teaching studio doubled as his composing site when not used for class. He often worked in tennis whites, cigar in mouth. It was a lovely space with a shiny terra-cotta floor, surrounded by wild vegetation, not unlike a suite at the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Hollywood. Of great annoyance to him, but to the delight of the students, a resident peacock would appear at the window in full plumage and shriek in ecstasy whenever Leon played the piano.

Kirchner was an inspiring teacher, almost Talmudic in his dedication. The wide range and pure variety of the composers and musicians who were fortunate enough to study with him and pursue careers of great individuality should serve as testimony to this. Those of us who loved him were aware of the toll his commitment to teaching over three decades took on his composing time.

After graduation, the same time he moved to Harvard, Leon generously agreed to my continuing working with him privately in Cambridge. He also sponsored my application for a Guggenheim Fellowship and, true to his word, arranged for me to meet some of his “industry” friends in Hollywood, an impressive assortment of actors, musicians and—would you believe—Arnold Schoenberg’s widow, Gertrude.

Through the ensuing years our families became close. I would stay with the Kirchners whenever I had concerts or “out-of-town” previews of plays in Boston as well as performing with Leon frequently as a guitarist at Harvard and Marlboro. The Kirchners, in turn, would stay with us in the Berkshires.

Those days were punctuated by a lot of hard work but also included some hilarious episodes. One time, when I was teaching at Tanglewood, Leon called me in a panic from Marlboro saying he had programmed Les Noces, and had great pianists but no presentable chorus. Could I help? I managed to round up a fine chorus and in a rented van we rehearsed all the way from Lenox to Marlboro.

Another highlight was the time we invited Paul Simon and Leon to dinner because Paul was having a problem with a new song. The two huddled and identified the passage in question and Leon asked Paul what his goal was. Paul answered: “to make this a hit.” The song was “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Now Leon had a streak of endearing innocence and at the time did not have much knowledge of pop music. He called me a few days later to report his students’ jaw-dropping response to the episode.

During the past year I have had the pleasure of spending some time with Leon’s oldest friend, Carl Reiner. Army buddies since WW II, Carl tells of Leon’s life in the military as a supply officer in charge of assigning jeeps. Apparently, as Carl tells it, Kirchner was ordered to write a score for a camp production of Frankenstein. Leon added the camp’s soprano to the orchestra who, as Reiner relates, let out a high “C” scream at the sight of the monster. This effect in tandem with, one could imagine, Leon’s signature expressionistic language sent shivers of horror down the spines of the audience made up of the soldiers of “Our Greatest Generation.”

When Leon moved to New York a few years back we became close again. He and his dear companion Sally Wardwell would particularly enjoy our annual birthday outings to the Soho House in Chelsea. He became interested and enjoyed the music making of his gifted daughter Lisa as well as his son Paul’s art work. Always the teacher, Kirchner turned his physical therapy sessions into discussions of the therapist’s art.

I had the privilege of spending a day with Leon a few weeks’ back when he played a recording of his early first piano concerto, with himself as the soloist. It was dazzling, fully formed “Kirchner” and informed by the most beautiful piano playing.

Kirchner’s music was hard for his students to analyze. It was structurally rigorous but like a star burst it would explode in its own individual way as if the form couldn’t hold the content. His piano playing was explosive too. I would compare it to Art Tatum. (Leon would often grouse about “notation being a big problem”.)

My favorite quote of Kirchner to his students: “Remember, the most important thing about the Bach Chorales is how beautiful they are. Study them and try to find out what makes them beautiful.”

Well, so long Lukas Foss, so long George Perle, and to you Leon, dear teacher and friend, it’s been grand!