Leon Kirchner was born on 24 January 1919 of Russian parents in Brooklyn, grew up in Los Angeles, and studied with Arnold Schoenberg, Roger Sessions, and Ernest Bloch. Stylistically, Kirchner has remained remarkably individual; earlier influences of Hindemith, Bartok, and Stravinsky soon yield to a wholehearted identification with the aesthetics, if not necessarily the specific procedures, of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern.
Extraordinarily gifted as both a pianist and a conductor, Kirchner is first and foremost a composer. A member of the American Academies of Arts and Letters and Arts and Science, he has been honored twice by the New York Music Critics' Circle (First and Second String Quartets), and received the Naumburg Award (Piano Concerto No. 1), the Pulitzer Prize (Third Quartet with electronic tape), the Friedheim Award (Music for Cello and Orchestra), and commissions from, among others, the Ford, Fromm, and Koussevitzky Foundations, the New York Philharmonic, The Philadelphia Orchestra, St. Paul Chamber Symphony, Spoleto and Santa Fe Chamber Music Festivals, the Boston Symphony, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. He was composer-in-residence and a performer at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, the Tanglewood Music Center, Tokyo Music Today (Takemitsu Festival), and the Spoleto, Charleston, Aldeburgh, and Marlboro Music Festivals. He has also conducted at a number of leading music festivals around the world, most recently at Ravinia, and taught for many years at Harvard.
Kirchner's most recent works include The Forbidden, for James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Music For Cello and Orchestra, for Yo-Yo Ma and the Philadelphia Orchestra (on Sony Classical), Trio No. 2 for the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, and Of Things Exactly as They Are, a work for orchestra, chorus, and soloists for the Boston Symphony, premiered in November 1996, and String Quartet No. 4 for the Orion Quartet. Following their premiere of the fourth String Quartet, the Orion Quartet recorded Kirchner's complete quartets, works which span a 57 year period, for Albany Records. Other recent works have included piano pieces for Russell Sherman and Jonathan Biss, and a violin-piano duo premiered by Ida Levin and Jeremy Denk.
Performers who have championed Kirchner's work include Yo-Yo Ma, who has toured and recorded both Music for Cello and Orchestra and Triptych for Sony; the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center; Continuum; pianists Peter Serkin, who commissioned and recorded Interlude (BMG), and Leon Fleisher; cellist Carter Brey; conductors Oliver Knussen, Hugh Wolff, and John Adams; and the trios of Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson and Buswell-Parnas-Luvisi.
Other recordings include Kirchner's first three String Quartets (Boston Composers String Quartet, Albany Troy 137) and Nonesuch's all-Kirchner recording (CD and tape, 79188) which includes the Concerto for Violoncello, Ten Winds, and Percussion; the Piano Trio; Five Piano Pieces; and Music for Twelve, featuring the Boston Symphony Chamber Players. Of Music for Twelve, Allan Kozinn of The New York Times wrote: "There is magic in the interplay between the 12 soloistic lines, and in the way instrumental colors seem to grow from each other to form lengthy melodies."