Karl Kohn is highly respected as a composer and pianist, not just in Los Angeles but also throughout the world. He’s also had a long career both as a teacher and on the board of directors of Monday Evening Concerts. In light of the upcoming Piano Spheres concert (this coming Tuesday, November 7), where Mark Robson will be playing a solo piano work by Kohn (Seven Brevities), I had the opportunity to ask him some questions about composing, his long performance career as a pianist, Monday Evening Concerts, and more. Here’s what he had to say:
Having served for two decades on the board of directors for Monday Evening Concerts, could you tell us about your experience there? Do any particular memories stand out?
The connection with MEC was very important for my wife Margaret and me. Under Lawrence Morton’s directorship the concerts were an opportunity to hear and to perform old repertoire as well as many new works, both by contemporary American and by European composers. Our collaborations and friendship with Pierre Boulez was special and delightful, but the list of other wonderful and meaningful composers and musicians with whom we worked is very lengthy.
Has your childhood growing up in Vienna informed the type of music you like to play/write? How so?
I was brought up in the Viennese Classics but also played some Debussy and Ravel. It was not until the years at Harvard that I played my first piece of twentieth-century music, Hindemith’s Third Piano Sonata. My freshman advisor at Harvard, Edward Ballantine, sent me packages of music while I served in the Army on Tinian in the Marianas, shipments that included works by Scriabin, Stravinsky, and the last two volumes of Bartok’s Mikrokosmos. I was a lucky guy.
You’ve composed for a wide range of instrumentations/genres of concert music. Do you have a favorite instrumentation/genre that you like to write for? Least favorite?
I have no favorites, either in the instrumentations/genres, and no favorites, really, among the works that I have composed – I like “all my children!”
Having written extensively for orchestra, what are your thoughts about composing for this medium? Has your opinion changed over time?
I loved writing for orchestra, and also for symphonic band. But for a Los Angeles-area composer (and especially a reasonably shy one situated way out in Claremont) writing for orchestra is not rich in opportunities. Nevertheless I have written several large orchestral works and all have had performances. In recent years, however, I have written and continue to write mostly for smallish chamber combinations of instruments.
How has your performance career as a pianist informed your career as a composer, and vice versa?
I imagine that my career as a pianist has had a very powerful impact on my compositional career, and I have written very much music for the piano, both solo and duo, and also for chamber groups that include the piano.
Your wife Margaret also has a long career as a pianist, and the two of you have performed together as a duo across the world. How do you inspire/encourage each other? What has your career of performing together been like?
Margaret and I started performing together while we were undergraduates at Harvard, almost seventy years ago – wow! For me certainly it has been a great joy to rehearse and play together with her these many years – indeed a blessed life.
Along with composing, you’ve also had a long career as a teacher. What are your thoughts about teaching? Do you find that it changes the way you look at music?
I taught at Pomona College for 44 years and have been retired from teaching since 1994. I like to think that it was a mutually beneficial experience both for my students and me.
You’re known for having a unique voice as a composer, which links an innovative musical style with a deep understanding of European classical tradition. How did your voice as a composer evolve? Where do you find the main sources of your inspiration?
As for my voice as a composer: I was brought up at Harvard in the milieu of American neo-classicism, admiring the music of my teachers Irving Fine, Walter Piston, Randall Thompson, and also Aaron Copland at Tanglewood. The Monday Evening Concerts and three sabbatical years in Europe gave me an opportunity to stay abreast of current developments from mostly in Europe while at the same time retaining my feet on the ground with teaching – albeit wonderful but more or less initially “unwashed” – undergraduates at Pomona College. I consider that my “style” since the late 1960’s has been referential to the broad historic past of Western, i.e. European and American, art music.
What advice do you have for emerging composers?
Get to know as much music of the past and present as possible, but be aware that this is getting to be ever more difficult in our current musical world. There is no any longer just one musical heritage but rather, in the words of David Noon, a former student: we live now in “a condominium of Babel!”
Check out Piano Spheres for more information on the upcoming concert, Tuesday November 7.
Tuesdays at Monk Space, the series run by Aron Kallay and Jason Heath in K-town, has a really cool mix of old and new happening tonight at 8. The first half of the program features Ensemble Hotteterre performing music by Couperin, Telemann and Phillidor on period instruments. The second is a Mark Robson solo harpsichord show, with pieces by Henry Cowell, Alexander Tcherepnin, Maurice Ohana, György Ligeti, and a premiere from Robson himself, along with selections from Froberger, Rossi, Scarlatti, and Giovanni de Macque for flavor.
Full info on the show is available at http://tuesdaysatmonkspace.org/shows/oldmusic-newmusic.
Next weekend the second annual HEAR NOW festival kicks off in Venice with two days of concerts featuring some of our little city’s best-known composers and an impressively large lineup of local players. Artistic director Hugh Levick had some time this weekend to fill us in on what’s coming up.
We’re less than a week from the festival. How’s it shaping up?
Frankly, Nick, I think we’re looking at two standing-room-only concerts. There are still tickets left, but they are going fast. With Mark Robson playing Thomas Ades, The Lyris quartet playing Don Davis, Burt Goldstein and Veronika Krausas, Don Crockett’s incredible piano trio Night Scenes performed by Joanne Pearce Martin, Shalini Vijayan & Ira Glansbeek (just to mention a few of the highlights) these are going to be two very hot concerts. 15 composers, 25 musicians – we’re all stoked!
As I understand it, this is only the festival’s second year. Tell me about how things got started.
The concept when it was initially conceived was ‘here now gone tomorrow’. Tim Loo and I had been talking about it for a couple years. Let’s hear what’s here now before it’s gone tomorrow. And we knew there was a lot here. Many composers were writing wonderful music and much of it was rarely being heard.
This brave and adventuresome music is hidden away, and the complex, intriguing, exuberant value that it offers has been more or less excluded from the common space of our culture.
Time is a choreography of ruptures, junctions, bifurcations, explosions, cataclysms, and crises. The fissures in Time break the continuum of History in which we live thus allowing the HERE NOW to be shot through with splinters of messianic hope—or, glimmers of light in the dark, which is what we hope The HEAR NOW Festival will be.
What’s different about the festival this year? Were there any things you’ve changed specifically as a result of the experience of the first year?
Except for Bill Kraft, Gernot Wolfgang and myself, all the composers are different from the ones who presented work last year. Gernot amd Gloria Cheng have joined Bill Kraft and the Lyris Quartet as artistic advisors. Ira Glansbeek, Erica Duke-Fitzpatrick, M.B. Gordy, Heather Clark, Suzan Hanson and Mark Robson did not perform last year. Experience taught us that we didn’t have to print up paper fliers–just postcard size and 12X18 posters, and that it would be better to have the 2 concerts on 2 different days rather than, as last year, one at 2PM and one at 8PM. Thanks to Eric Jacobs we have a website. Rather than a Kawai piano this year we have – thanks to Gloria Cheng – a Steinway. One thing regretfully that has NOT changed is that it looks as if – we are still trying to reverse this – the LA Times will not be reviewing the HEAR NOW Festival.
The lineup of musicians on this is really, really impressive. Have you found local performers eager to join in?
As you say, Nick, the players are simply world-class. Every one of them has enthusiastically embraced HEAR NOW. The festival is creating a community of players and composers who want to make contemporary composition and performance into a significant presence here in Los Angeles. Our city is a center of contemporary classical music – this is a simple reality. More people should know about it and have the opportunity to experience it.
I have to ask, partially because I’m a fan of his, but mainly because I’m curious about the logic here. Every single composer on the program lives or is primarily active in Los Angeles, with the exception of only one! Why Thomas Ades?
Thomas Ades now has a home in Los Angeles. He has a position, perhaps it’s ‘Composer-in-Residence’ (?), with the LA Phil.
Well then, learn something new every day. I know that HEAR NOW has curated at least one event outside of the festival. Where do you see the organization heading in the future?
The event of which you are speaking was a fund-raiser in March of this year. Mark Swed was the headliner and, interviewed by Martin Perlich, he was fascinating. It looks like we will be having another fundraiser in December, this one headlined by Esa-Pekka Salonen, who will be working with the LA Phil at that time. Eventually we would like to get to a situation where we can have the festival two weekends running – one weekend in Venice and the following weekend in a more eastern venue – downtown or Pasadena… We also envisage having,as well as the festival, one or two concerts a year which would feature the music of individual composers. First half Vera Ivanova, for instance; second half, Bill Kraft. Something like that…
That’d be rad. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Saturday the 25th, one week from today at 8 PM is the first HEAR NOW Festival concert; one week from tomorrow, Sunday the 26th at 5PM is the second HEAR NOW Festival concert. There are still some tickets available. You can purchase tickets at our website, www.hearnowmusicfestival.com.
Thank you, Nick, for asking!!
I just received an email from the fine folks over at Piano Spheres that basically said “short notice, but Mark Robson is playing today at noon as part of Play Me, I’m Yours, at the piano at One Colorado in Old Town Pasadena.”
So if you’re somewhere over there on a lunch break (or don’t have a job – and you’re luckier than you think you are), and want to catch a Mark Robson concert for free, now you know where to do it.