Artist to Watch: Michael Kirkendoll

The accomplished pianist, based at KU, performs international and is an avid promoter of new music.

A grotto in a 13th-century Tuscan monastery. A mechanic’s garage. A floating barge under the Brooklyn Bridge. A haunted Gothic chapel in downtown Kansas City. Wherever he goes, pianist Michael Kirkendoll brings his passion for the music of living composers.

Considering that he studied his whole life — well into his doctorate — basically despising new music, the turnabout has been completed. “I just discovered how much fun it was to work with living composers, to ask questions, to have things written for whatever the composer or myself view as my best attributes,” Kirkendoll explained over the phone. “I felt like I had the ability to share and convey this music to audiences that don’t usually like it . . . to encourage audiences to be more open to seeking out new things. That’s kind of my personal mission with contemporary music, to share it with audiences that may not get it all the time.”

Kirkendoll grew up in Andover, Kan., more interested in baseball than piano until his junior year in high school. He is now Assistant Professor of Piano at the University of Kansas, where he received his doctoral and bachelor’s degrees (he earned a master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music).

He’s an active performer, with frequent performances in Kansas City and Lawrence, as well as nationally. The past two seasons he’s played with newEar Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, and will play with them this season on September 24 and October 24 at Central United Methodist Church. “NewEar is such a great thing and I’m thrilled that Kansas City has an ensemble and a series that has been developed and curated for so long like this. I hope it can continue to grow and make its reach even deeper into the community . . .in combination with all the other incredible music institutions happening and doing so amazingly well right now. I think that having contemporary music represented by a group like newEar is essential for a city like Kansas City.”

Though he is a consummate collaborative musician, most of his performance opportunities are as  a soloist. In his recitals he structures themed programs, or programs that juxtapose the old and the new, pairing obscure pieces from great composers with surprising modern choices: Scarlatti and Ligeti, Brahms and Schoenberg, Ives and Beethoven. Still, his primary repertoire is music written since 1945. A recent recital at the University of Kansas, “Meditations,” featured works inspired by eastern religions and philosophies, including works by Philip Glass, John Cage, Olivier Messiaen, and a world premiere by KU professor Forrest Pierce.

This past May Kirkendoll was featured in a recital series in New York City’s Bargemusic celebrating the work of Frederic Rzewski in “Music for Speaking Pianist.” A review in New York Classical Review described Kirkendoll’s performance as a “[tour] de force of skill, comprehension, and energetic, intelligent theatricality,” the text “delivered with palpable relish . . .full of darkly hilarious, maniacal glee.” In the coming season he’ll present these works locally, with a performance at the University of Kansas September 18 and one in Kansas City later in the fall. That project, along with an upcoming performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kan., exemplify his range of expertise.

But the highlight of Kirkendoll’s year is the Cortona Sessions for New Music each July in Cortona, Italy. He and his wife attended a different program in the same region in 2006 and fell in love with the area. “We wanted to do something that was bigger than just pushing our careers,” said Kirkendoll, so they established the non-profit organization International Foundation for Contemporary Music to commission new works, support recordings, and create educational programs, founding the Sessions in 2010.

Though they started out as a small core faculty of close musical friends and about 20 participants, the event has grown to include some of the most important voices in contemporary music in the world, such as members of the JACK Quartet, h2 quartet, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, and International Contemporary Ensemble. For some of the Fellows, the Sessions are their first immersion into new music. Afterwards, they’ve been inspired to start their own chamber ensembles and recital series devoted to the music of living composers.

“The expansion and the growth [by the Fellows] to spread the patronage and love for contemporary music is a really rewarding aspect for me. I’ve made a lot of great musical friends and colleagues through it that provide new places and new opportunities to perform and play every year.”

His wife, Mary Kirkendoll, is also a trained musician who earned her doctoral degree in flute performance. Their debut recital in Carnegie Hall together featured new music, premieres and their first commissions, and for nine years they performed as the chamber group DuoSolo. But recently she turned her passion for yoga into a business, the Eudora Yoga Center. The couple intend to program performances in that space, too, but for now . . .Kirkendoll attends class once a week, though he admitted to being “the worst student in all of her classes.”

Another benefit of visiting Cortona annually is that he can indulge his other passion: wine. Good thing, too, because (unlike the Tuscan sunshine) you can bring a bottle back home. He shares his oenophile findings as the UncorkedPianist on Twitter.

When asked how the wines in Kansas compare, Kirkendoll said, “I was pleasantly surprised by the wine at the vineyard around the corner from us here in Eudora . . .but my passion is still really for Italian wines.”

No sour grapes, though. Kirkendoll’s busy schedule this past summer included serving as faculty for KU’s International Institute for Young Musicians, a camp for prodigiously talented young pianists, which Kirkendoll himself attended when he was 16 years old. He also recently joined the Yamaha Artist roster.

Kirkendoll’s influence is far reaching, whether contributing to the education of the next generation of artists, commissioning and promoting new work, or honing his skills as a performer, bringing to life the music of dead composers and supporting the works of living ones.

In addition to his performances with newEar on Sept. 24 and Oct. 24 at Central United Methodist Church, Kirkendoll will present a solo recital as part of the newEar Satellite Concert Series at 8 p.m. Nov. 5 at The Writers Place, 3607 Pennsylvania. The program will feature two works that include an integrated speaking part for the pianist by Frederic Rzewski, Marriage and De Profundis, based on texts by Leo Tolstoy and Oscar Wilde respectively. For tickets, newear.org.

Above: Pianist Michael Kirkendoll approaches music with a combination of passion and a spirit of fun. Photo by Jim Barcus

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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