KU News Release

Dec. 14, 2011
Contact: Jack Martin, Office of Public Affairs, 785-864-7100

KU honorary degree recipient: Kirke L. Mechem

Kirke L. Mechem

For the degree of Doctor of Arts: Kirke L. Mechem , for notable contributions to choral music and opera

Growing up in Topeka, Kirke L. Mechem never saw an opera, although his mother was pianist and filled the house with Chopin and the classics. After serving in the Army during World War II, he enrolled at Stanford University, initially as an English major. He soon switched to music, working with Harold Schmidt, the choral director. He earned a master’s degree in composition at Harvard, then returned to Stanford as assistant choral director. He lived for a while in Vienna before becoming the composer-in-residence at the University of San Francisco.

In January 2011, Mechem’s From the Heartland, a composition for baritone and orchestra based on four poems by his father (Kirke Field Mechem, longtime director of the Kansas State Historical Society) was premiered by the Topeka Symphony at a program in honor of Kansas’s sesquicentennial. Also on the program was his The Jayhawk: Overture to a Mythical Comedy, which the Symphony had commissioned in 1976.

Mechem has been recognized as “the dean of American choral composers.” He is credited with more than 250 works, including “Give Thanks unto the Lord,” which won the SAI American Music Award; “Symphony No. 1,” premiered by the San Francisco Symphony in 1965; “Seven Joys of Christmas,” a staple of holiday concerts; and “Island in Space,” which conveys astronaut Russell Schweickart’s awe at looking back at the Earth from space. He has been honored by the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Choral Directors Association, the Music Educators National Conference and the National Opera Association with a Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2007, the American Choral Directors association celebrated his 50 years of compositions with a retrospective concert at its national convention.

Inspired by the operas he had seen in Vienna, he created the three-act opera Tartuffe, based on Moliere’s play. Premiered in 1980 by the San Francisco Opera, it has been performed nearly 400 times. Tartuffe is "a delight... a high spirited farce... The overall invention and genial good nature of this score remain impressive indeed" (New York Times) and “a delight, a deft, glimmering, witty score” (Opera Now). Over the next 20 years, he wrote two more operas, The Rivals, based on Sheridan’s play, and Pride and Prejudice, while working on John Brown. His three-act opera John Brown was premiered by the Lyric Opera of Kansas City in 2008 to critical acclaim:

• "...the sort of magical success that composers and musicians dream of... a natural from start to finish... could easily become an iconic American classic." — Kansas City Star on world premiere of "John Brown" by Lyric Opera Kansas City, 2008
• "Profound and haunting, it may be as close to an American epic as anything yet written." — National Catholic Reporter on "John Brown" premiere
• "...marvelous both in sound and emotion... tonal and lyric, but never trite. 'I'm Free' and 'Stoke The Fire' are as stirring as anything Verdi ever wrote." — Opera Today on "John Brown" premiere
• "John Brown clutches music, history and the soul itself... Mechem's score swells into both requiem and celebration. Afterward the crowd leapt to its feet and clapped so long and hard that hands grew sore." — Pitch.com on "John Brown" premiere

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