Paula RobisonFlutist Paula Robison writes about Leon Kirchner's Music for Flute and Orchestra and its long journey from 1971, when Kirchner first wrote music for Robison, to this 1977 NEA commission, and the premiere of the restored score scheduled for November 5.

Hugh Wolff worked with Robison on corrections to the score and will conduct the NEC Philharmonia in this performance. In a series of videos, Robison and Wolff discuss Kirchner's work.

A brief history of Leon Kirchner’s
Music for Flute and Orchestra

In 1971 Leon Kirchner wrote a solo flute piece called Flutings for Paula. He surprised me with the elegant manuscript one day. Immersed in the process of composing his opera Lily, he tossed towards me a sweet green branch with a bit of birdsong wafting from it, as if he were taking a breath from the maelstrom of the operatic world in which he was almost drowning and finding refuge in the lush green forest to which he always longed to return, if only in mind and spirit. (In photo: Leon Kirchner, Paula Robison)

I immediately asked Leon for a piece for flute and orchestra; I wanted to play more of that incandescent birdsong. He said “yes”. The National Endowment for the Arts funded me. The opera was finally completed and had its premiere, and Leon set to work on the flute piece. The year was 1977.

In 1978, after much drama and many colorful moments, we gave the premiere with the Indianapolis Symphony conducted by John Nelson. Shortly after that, Michael Tilson Thomas began to champion the work, and we had some wonderful performances together. (in photo below: Robison, Michael Tilson Thomas)

The piece was magnificent. But still the score remained un-engraved. Leon’s handwriting was miniscule and barely readable. He had written (at my request) for a huge orchestra: strings, full winds and brass, seven percussionists, harp, piano, celesta, and even a fabulous few bars of electric piano. The writing was full of color and passion, highly complex, containing within it the poetry, mystery and incantation of birdsong, and in performance the swing of “big band” music. But the score was never corrected and engraved, so the piece languished.

In 1994 Leon revised it, adding and subtracting, condensing, finding a more pleasing, tonal approach to its middle section. We had several performances in the following years, but I longed for the original version as a legacy from Leon of an extremely fertile compositional period in his life, even though it was also wracked with uncertainty and pain.

In 2004, a much happier man, he agreed to go back to the original score and restore it so that it would be legible and performable. We wanted above all to preserve the divine quality of improvisation which suffuses all music by Kirchner, no matter how complex. His task was fierce: he had to notate several improvisational passages for a huge orchestra, so that it would give the solo flutist and each participating player a sense of immediacy, of chance-taking, and still preserve the exquisite beauty of his compositional and intellectual ideas. He had to be precise about his markings for the brass, so that they and the basses could take their hugeness and fly like eagles, soaring and swinging through the air. It took a while, but he did it. (Geniuses are so difficult sometimes.)

Again the piece languished in the vaults of Schirmer. But then Hugh Wolff agreed to perform it with me! Hugh had studied with Leon at Harvard and he understands the spirit of Leon’s creative output in an extraordinary way. We spent many intense hours this summer sorting out all the corrections, consulting with great David Flachs at Schirmer’s (another inhabitant, along with us, of Leon’s imagined “lush green forest”), and the engraver in Canada. Finally we were able to say that we had recaptured the wildly beautiful work, so that we could release it to sing again. Leon is no longer with us in body but he certainly is in spirit, and it is with the greatest joy that we experience tonight his newly engraved Music for Flute and Orchestra as he conceived and composed it in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1978.

Timeline for Kirchner’s Music for Flute and Orchestra

1978: Composition and premiere (John Nelson and Indianapolis Symphony) and other performances

1983: last performance of original version (w/Michael Tilson Thomas and American Symphony, Carnegie Hall)

1983-1994: Score and parts remain in Schirmer vault

1994: LK makes a revised version (performances w/LK at Harvard, MTT at Ojai)

2004: Restoration of original 1978 version by Leon Kirchner

2014: Premiere of restoration (Paula Robison, Hugh Wolff, NEC Philharmonia)

2014: Engraving of restored original score and parts by G. Schirmer/Associated