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SJOG Travelers

Bay Area’s famed composer, Kirke Mechem, goes back to his roots for his latest premiere.
By Mort Levine

The tall, striking figure next to me in the coffee line at the intermission of Opera San José’s splendid Eugene Onegin provided a reunion opportunity with one of America’s outstanding contemporary composers. Kirke Mechem is a fan of Opera San José, which performed his Tartuffe back in the ‘80s. The Molière comedy was Mechem’s first opera, and he’s been hooked on the artform ever since.

His reputation as a choral and symphonic composer stretches back nearly a half century. He’s been a San Francisco resident since 1963. Opera offers an especially intriguing challenge, but his talents go much beyond composing. He does his own libretti and has a special flair for the dramatic.

A number of local opera fans trekked back to the nation’s heartland last spring to the world premiere of John Brown, an operatic masterwork, on one of the most mythic characters in American history. Appropriately, the performance took place not that far from Pottawatomie where the rifle toting, bible thumping abolitionist was hanged. The opera was commissioned by the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Mo. and has had an amazing impact on raising the image of the company. The Kansas City Star said the opera caused “the sort of magical success that composers and musicians only dream of at which the crowd lept to its feet and clapped so long that hands grew sore.”

The work had a gestation period of 20 years because of its challenging complexity. In the interim, Mechem has been extremely busy with chamber music, artsong, choral work and a range of orchestral pieces. His two symphonies have been performed under Joseph Krips by the San Francisco Symphony.

And, new operas haven’t been neglected either. Mechem’s two new operas include a rollicking comedy, The Newport Rivals, based on the Sheridan restoration comedy and the famed novel Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Both have been workshopped in different parts of the country and are being prepared for full scale performance.

The music from John Brown has been worked into an orchestral suite called Songs of a Slave. Since its premiere in 1994, it has been performed over 70 times.

The friendly, unassuming composer has his roots in Kansas, having been born in 1925 in Wichita and raised in Topeka. His mother was a German trained concert pianist and his father was a writer of novels and plays. So the words and the music come together naturally. His musical training was with some of the great teachers at Stanford, Harvard and abroad. He’s lived with his wife and children in Vienna and London.

The true greatness of Mechem’s music is its ready accessibility to audiences. He’s lived through the long period of purely “intellectual” music which dominated much of the 20th century, especially in academic circles.

As he explained it: “I’m too old to be taken in by trends or jargon. I want to love a piece of music, be delighted by it, moved to tears or laughter, or to be taken by it out of myself.”

After John Brown, it is long past time for a Mechem opera premiere right here in the bay area.

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