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.
If it weren’t for Justin Urcis and Monday Evening Concerts, I may never have found a way in to the new music scene in LA. Way back when I finished college, before the scene was as healthy and open as it is today, I was networking like crazy to find a job in music and largely getting ignored. Justin was kind enough to write back to me one day, and invited me to meet with him and, ultimately, intern with MEC. And let me tell you: if you want to meet a guy who can tackle an unbelievably gigantic task, running a season just as busy as those of many orchestras with large staffs, on his own, in what little extra time he has, then you want to meet Justin. I’m glad he had time to answer some questions.
Monday Evening Concerts has an enormous history, going straight back to Stravinsky in the 1930s, and getting to today by way of Boulez, the Arditti Quartet, and right up through Salonen and Stucky. Was taking charge of such a prestigious organization a few years ago, well, intimidating?
I suppose I was / have been too busy organizing things to worry about being intimidated. Someone had to keep the series going and somehow it ended up being me. That said, I do take the responsibility of running the series seriously and strive to present concerts of the quality and import that have made the series known and respected throughout the world.
With your series’ tradition of premieres from both luminaries of the avant-garde and up-and-comers, as well as performances of important pieces from the modernist and post-modern repertory, programming must be a bit tricky. What’s your approach?
The first consideration is that I will only program a concert that I would pay, and travel a reasonable distance, to hear. If a program does not meet that criteria, I cannot in good conscience ask an audience to buy a ticket or donate to support the event.
There are a lot of concerts I would pay and travel to hear but that are not appropriate for Monday Evening Concerts, such as a string quartet recital with works by Haydn and Schubert. I love those composers but the idea of presenting a traditional string quartet recital isn’t consistent with our mission.
A second consideration is whether anyone else in Los Angeles will present this program if we don’t; i.e. are we providing an experience that other organizations won’t. Obviously we don’t want to let other organization define us, but I think that MEC has always promoted concerts and events that are unique to Southern California. Last season REDCAT did a large Xenakis festival, so that seems less of a pressing concern for us in the near future. However, should a Xenakis piece fit just perfectly into a program or should we have an opportunity to present a special performer or ensemble playing Xenakis then we’d still do it. Last year the JACK Quartet played some short Webern pieces in between two quartets by Aaron Cassidy. The Cassidy quartets were classic MEC fare and it was the first time his music had even been heard on the West Coast. But I’m sure several string quartets each year play these short pieces of Webern in LA. So it’s not like audiences wouldn’t have had the chance to hear these pieces if we hadn’t presented them. However, the Webern fit just perfectly in this context so we presented it.
Clearly a lot of the programming reflects my personal tastes. That’s obvious from my first consideration. It’s difficult for me to articulate what qualities I’m looking for in music since there are so many. However, I do feel strongly that a concert should be something transcendent and spiritual, as vague and loaded as those terms may be. In a film we showed on Salvatore Sciarrino, Sciarrino said something like (I’m paraphrasing here), “When you go to a concert, it should really be a transformative experience. You should be transformed. Otherwise, what’s the point?” And I think he’s fundamentally right. There are a lot of options for entertainment nowadays. Life is short, and so while I have fun, I also take it seriously, knowing that we may not be around very long. And so, when an organization like MEC has really limited resources, and individuals decide to trust us with their money and generosity, we have an obligation to really do something that’s special and important for our culture. And each season, I feel this more strongly: that the concert has to be something special, that it can really change someone’s life, someone’s perspective on music, art, and humanity. And this can all be pleasurable (although at times it may not be, since it may also be disorienting, confusing, challenging, ugly, etc.). But it’s from this fundamental impulse that my desire for quality emerges. We certainly may not succeed all the time, but we need to keep trying.
More specifically, I spend a lot of time focusing on the pacing and contrasts in each program. I try to find compositions that will sound “just right” to follow another composition, even if they may seem unrelated. For the sake of our audience, I also try to provide a variety of styles throughout the season. I’m not in favor of presenting a series which clings to one type of aesthetic (i.e. only American experimental tradition, only Lachenmann and his descendants, only minimalism and its followers, etc). I think there are really great works in all of these traditions. Recently the series has presented a fair amount of recent European music. That’s probably because I’m finding a lot of that music interesting and because a lot of it is underrepresented here, so I feel more compelled to present it.
Every so often we’ll do something that may not seem especially new, but is unfamiliar. Last season we presented a 35 minute long a cappella passion by Heinrich Schutz. I happen to love Schutz, and especially his passions, but I quickly realized that these late works simply are not performed in LA. So we decided to present this sizable piece. Why not? I think MEC exists to take on projects like this. This meets the second consideration. We paired it with a very contemporary piece by Rolf Riehm which placed the Schutz in a contemporary context. I think this Riehm-Schutz combination is a good example of a Monday Evening Concerts program. Last month we paired organ works of Frescobaldi and Pasquini with a major piece by Klaus Lang. I’m sure the organ pieces were discoveries for much of the audience; I’m fairly familiar with Renaissance keyboard music and I had only known one of these three works before the concert.
Monday Evening Concerts has a distinguished history and I do consider this history when programming. I have my own interpretation of MEC’s history which may differ from others, but I see the organization as one that is constantly evolving and changing.
It’s important to state that I’m not coming up with all these programs on my own. On the contrary, I think our “secret” is that I rely heavily on friends, composers, performers, and anyone I can talk to for advice. Ultimately the programming is filtered through my sensibility, but I’m always speaking with people to get ideas and learn what’s out there. I’m not afraid to ask for help when I need it, and ask people to critique my ideas. It’s a constant process of refining and editing, and hopefully I do a good job, although I’m always nervous about the results.
Finally, none of the programming will work without great performers. All great music requires great performances. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Bach, John Cage, or Gerard Pesson. So we spend a lot of time trying to find the right performers for each piece and each concert. We have many really wonderful musicians based in Southern California and we invite them to perform frequently. (Composers from around the world have remarked on how well their music is performed here in Los Angeles). There are also marvelous performers elsewhere in the US and around the world, and we like to invite them as well, especially when they have special experience with a particular composer or tradition (i.e. Vincent Royer to play Radulescu, Mario Caroli for Sciarrino, JACK Quartet for Aaron Cassidy, Natalia Pschenitschnikova for Klaus Lang, etc, etc…). I think our audience enjoys hearing this combination of local and visiting performers which keeps the series lively and unpredictable. It’s also gratifying to watch local and visiting performers play together, which is an enriching experience for both and has the potential to foster new collaborations amongst them.
Tell me a bit about this season.
We’re midway into our 2011-2012 season. In December we presented the United States premiere of Gyorgy Kurtag’s major song cycle “…pas a pas…nulle part” which really had a major impact on our audience. Last month we presented the United States premiere of Klaus Lang’s “einfalt. stille.” for soprano, percussion, flute and viola which was particularly magical, and I marveled at the composer’s ability to create an incredibly rich sound world with such limited resources. Coming up is the United States debut of the Norwegian new music ensemble “asamisimasa.” Aside from being fantastic musicians, the group has developed a personal and idiosyncratic (in the best sense) repertoire which is quite refreshing. The music of Stefan Wolpe, Peter Ablinger, and Evan Johnson is featured in March, while our April concert highlights the many talents of Steven Schick, who will perform as a percussionist, speaker/actor and conductor in a program of Helmut Lachenmann, Kurt Schwitters and Aldo Clementi.
It must be very different to run a concert series than it is to run an ensemble or a venue. Can you talk about some of the work that goes into presenting this, and some of the differences?
I have never run an ensemble or a venue, but I believe I have enough of an understanding of the issues involved in administering both that I can accurately characterize some of the differences. An ensemble will have a fixed roster of performers and they will have a strong voice in determining the repertoire for the group. It is rare to have an outside party determine the repertoire for an ensemble unless it’s a music director, but even the music director will / should consider the desires of his / her performers in determining repertoire. The musicians should be enthusiastic about playing whichever music they are performing and not do it out of a sense of duty or obligation. Ensembles are also limited by their instrumentation. Because we do not have a fixed ensemble, I believe we have more opportunities available to us. Back to the Riehm / Schutz concert we did last season; I don’t think there are any ensembles out there that have 12 singers who sing Baroque music in addition to piano, violin, viola, cello, percussion, oboe, piccolo flute and contrabass clarinet! That said, I do regret that our concerts are often one-time affairs. The performers often put in an unbelievable amount of effort and time into learning and rehearsing demanding new scores only to play them once. This is not an ideal situation for them, but we don’t have the capacity to present multiple performances. Performers need to live with great music for many years to deepen their interpretations and an ensemble can provide this opportunity which we cannot (which is why we sometimes present ensembles or performers that have experience with certain pieces).
A venue has certain limitations as well. Our main venue is Zipper Concert Hall at the Colburn School although we do not use it for all of our productions It is a wonderful concert hall with superb acoustics and is an appropriate size for our events. However we do find occasions when we another venue is necessary. For example we presented Charlemagne Palestine several years ago in the First Congregational Church which has a monster pipe organ. This would simply not be possible in Zipper. So MEC has the flexibility of choosing venues based on their suitability for a given production.
Is there something that you are most proud of? I particularly remember when you managed to shut down a stretch of Grand Avenue for a performance of Ein Brise…
I am proud of introducing new music to our audiences and providing performers with opportunities to become more searching and creative musicians. I hope that we have done this on a number of occasions. It is especially gratifying when we have presented composers whose music should be better known, such as Frank Denyer, Horatiu Radulescu, Rolf Riehm and many many others.
From a logistical standpoint, shutting down Grand Avenue or obtaining 100% total darkness for our Georg Friedrich Haas concert were accomplishments, but I suppose the satisfaction would be no greater if I had shut down Grand Avenue for a rock concert or a random parade. Ultimately what’s important is the artistic experience. I’m always pleased when I’m told by a performer or audience member that a concert provided a lasting impression.
What’s something you’d like to work on, improve, or add, for the future of MEC?
There are an infinite number of possibilities, but they require funding. So the first answer to your question is that we’d like to increase the size of our budget. This would allow us to present more concerts and/or works with greater numbers of performers. I feel that our Sunday morning educational series at the Goethe Institut has been really wonderful and it would be great to begin recording these as they are a great introduction to composers and themes in contemporary music. I’ve thought about publishing short books on the work of various composers or producing documentaries. Collaborations with educational institutions are possible, as well as programs that introduce new music to younger audiences (i.e. under 18 years of age). There are also plenty of performers of early music and traditional repertoire that don’t get presented here in LA. It would be great to branch out and fill in some of these gaps. Opera, installations, and multiple performances of works are also dreams.
Being that you and your series are LA institutions, what is your favorite:
While there are a number of neighborhoods I like for various reasons, I have to pick Vauban (It’s not in LA, but it’s the most intriguing neighborhood I’ve recently encountered and deserves to be recognized for its realization of some utopian ideals). Worth checking out!
2. Place to hear music
Anywhere that’s quiet and has decent acoustics.
4. Bar/hang out
I like hanging out at home.
6. Thing to do/see
Is there anything you would like to add?
Thank you for your interest in Monday Evening Concerts.
“Jazz Encounters,” the next Monday Evening Concert, is on March 26 at Zipper Hall. For details, visit mondayeveningconcerts.org.