Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Marlboro Man

Leon Kirchner first visited the Marlboro Music Festival in 1959 but it was from 1963 that his participation started to grow. He enjoyed renewed contact with old friends—Schneider, Serkin, Fleisher, and Horszowski—and by conducting a performance of his Double Concerto, with Jaime Laredo and cellist Madeline Foley as soloists, Kirchner made many new friends. Kirchner and Marlboro proved to be an ideal match, and in the course of ensuing seasons his participation and role in the festival quickly grew. Rudolf Serkin, Marlboro’s artistic director, wanted to augment the festival’s involvement with twentieth-century music, and Kirchner was wonderfully suited to guide this effort. Here is another extract from Robert Riggs’ superb new biography of the composer, who died in 2009, which looks at a rather unwelcome political intervention in the Festival:

In the mid-1960s, at the height of the Vietnam War, world events were not just distant news—Marlboro occasionally had direct personal encounters with major players from the political stage. In 1967 an orchestra rehearsal conducted by Casals was disturbed by the noisy arrival of two helicopters from Washington, DC. They disgorged a team of sleek Secret Service agents sent in advance to run a security check on the premises prior to the arrival the next day of Vice President Hubert Humphrey and his entourage: Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, and Katharine Graham, owner and publisher of the Washington Post.

Graham, whose wealthy parents had helped Serkin establish Marlboro, spent a weekend there every year, and Fortas, an amateur violinist and music lover, was also a regular visitor. Years earlier, government business had taken Fortas to Puerto Rico, where he served on the Board of Directors of the Casals Festival and became friends with Casals, even playing chamber music with him informally. When Franco became dictator in Spain in 1939 at the end of the Spanish Civil War, Casals’s public musical profile became politically charged by his refusal to play in Spain or in any country that recognized its regime. Thus, Fortas had instigated a coup—both political and artistic—by proposing and orchestrating an invitation to Casals to perform in the Kennedy White House in 1961. Casals had requested and received a private meeting with the president, during which, it was later reported, their conversation focused on world peace.

These visitors from Washington were not unequivocally welcome at Marlboro. Some musicians resented that Fortas, a mere amateur, would be playing with Casals, which they did not have the opportunity to do. A far more serious matter, however, was that without exception the younger participants, and most of the senior ones as well, were vehemently opposed to American policy in Vietnam.

Serkin—who had played in Minneapolis in 1947 and had met Humphrey, at that time the city’s mayor—viewed the visitors as musical pilgrims rather than as representatives of a corrupt government, but he was in a distinct minority. Strong sentiment to mount a political protest put Serkin in a very awkward situation. According to bassoonist Sol Schoenbach, Serkin threatened, “If you insult my friends, I’m leaving”; and Schoenbach noted: “We finally worked out a compromise: the angry students wrote letters of protest and Serkin promised to give all the letters to Humphrey. And he did just that: he handed him about seventy letters, which I’m sure Humphrey never read.”

Although the visitors took an interest in and enjoyed the music making, the real—but unannounced and secret—purpose of Humphrey’s visit was more political than musical. He had come to urge Casals to accept another invitation to perform at the White House. Casals, however, was terribly disturbed by Lyndon Johnson’s policies, which he considered immoral, in handling the Vietnam War. According to biographer H. L. Kirk, “This time his conscience would not let him accept, but the decision preoccupied Casals for days and made him physically so ill that he curtailed his stay in Vermont, canceled scheduled engagements abroad, and returned to Puerto Rico.”

Kirchner also had a dramatic personal encounter with one of the Washingtonians. On leaving his rehearsal studio, he ran directly into Serkin and McNamara, and was summarily introduced to the secretary of defense.

I was very uncomfortable. There he was, the man who was sending out over a million of our men to Vietnam—a place where we didn’t belong and had no understanding of what was going on. There were people dying by the hundreds of thousands. This was McNamara. He asked me what I was doing, and I said that I was working on a piece. He asked which one, and when I told him it was by Hindemith [Kammermusik No. 1, Op. 24, no. 1], he wanted to know what it was about. I told him that it was actually about fascism. This really rattled him, so I explained that at the end of the work there was a dance-like section—rapid and fast, with a trumpet that seems out of control—and that it appears to end in violence with the tremendous whine of a siren. He listened without saying much, so I continued and told him that it was like a pickup truck. Some artists have the means to feel what is going on in the world around them. Hindemith left Germany not only because his wife was Jewish but also because he was severely antagonistic to Hitler’s policies.

They parted, but the following day Katharine Graham (whom Kirchner knew from previous visits) came up after a rehearsal and asked Kirchner to join her and McNamara, who wanted to speak with him again: “I had to; there was nothing else to be done. McNamara began to reflect on this Hindemith; he asked me all sorts of questions. I always thought he was a smart brute, a person who had no feelings, no sensitivities, but he was really quite sensitive to what was going on. He wanted to know how these things came about with artists. He asked me crucial questions.”

When Graham came to Marlboro again the following year, Kirchner was reminded of these conversations, and he told her that he had found McNamara to be extraordinarily sensitive. She suggested that he might write to McNamara, who—due to intervening developments in Vietnam, and his subsequent “demotion” by Johnson in February 1968 to become head of the World Bank—had become one of the most unhappy creatures on the globe. McNamara was in agony, she explained, and now regretted his policies; he felt that he had made terrible mistakes. He knew it in his stomach—perhaps, Kirchner wondered, partially through the kind of intuitive, artistic process about which they had conversed—but not in his mind and did not yet have the courage to come out and admit everything publicly. Kirchner never wrote.

It should be noted that Robert S. McNamara finally revealed his personal views and analysis of the Vietnam War when he published In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (1995). In this book he discussed his mistakes in detail and acknowledged a strong sense of guilt and regret. The image at the top of this post shows Kirchner (on the right) and Jaime Laredo at Marlboro in 1965 (photographer unknown).

Robert Riggs’ new book, Leon Kirchner: Composer, Performer, and Teacher, is published by the University of Rochester Press and is available from your favourite bookseller.

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