In modern American culture, it can be difficult to escape the perception that bigger is better. For soprano Joan Kirchner, Renaissance music offers a respite from this ethos. “In a way, it’s the understatement,” the singer says. “A small gesture or ornament can be so effective.” Several years ago, Kirchner attended the Boston Early Music Festival—a biennial event in Cambridge celebrating historic music—and was particularly moved by a countertenor performing on the main opera stage. “He held this beautiful long pianissimo note and the whole auditorium was still,” the Brewster resident remembers. “When he finished, everyone just erupted.” Regarding the subtle artistry of this performance, the singer says, “It’s the antithesis of value in modern life.”
Kirchner grew up in western New York, outside of Buffalo. She learned how to play the piano from her mother and felt the pull of music from an early age. In college, she majored in music and learned how to play the organ. “It just fascinated me,” she says. “I was like a duck in water.”
Kirchner’s parents did not support her singular pursuit of music, so she double-majored in business administration. “That was the compromise,” she says, “and then my father wanted me to get an MBA. That was my big rebellion.” Kirchner followed her dreams and pursued a master’s degree in organ, which helped uncover her vocal talent.
As part of a work-study program, Kirchner frequently accompanied singers on the piano and organ. After a while, she realized something pivotal. “I could actually sing better than a lot of those singers,” she says. Following graduate school, Kirchner worked as an organist for a church in North Carolina. She sang with various chorale groups and, as her confidence bloomed, auditioned for oratorio and opera solos. These auditions led to some incredible opportunities.
“My most profound experiences were in Toronto,” Kirchner says, where she sang with the world-class Tafelmusik Chamber Choir. “It was very exciting to work with people who had really studied early music.” These included acclaimed conductors such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Gustav Leonhardt, and Ton Koopman. These artists all have very different personalities, Kirchner says, but notes that she learned a great deal from each of them. “I remember Ton Koopman wasn’t that proficient in English, but he would make a gesture and you would immediately understand what he meant,” she recalls.
Since moving to Cape Cod in 1995, Kirchner has established deep roots in the music community. She co-founded the Renaissance group OYEZ! (a derivative of the French verb meaning “listen”) and plays the organ for Christ Church in Harwichport. When she is not busy rehearsing or performing, she teaches voice, piano, and organ lessons at her home studio. Although she teaches children, most of her students are adults. “That’s partly because of the Cape’s demographics, and partly because I’ve done a lot of research into how age affects the voice,” she explains.
Despite her busy schedule, Kirchner is driven by her lifelong love of music, and her affinity for Cape Cod. “One of the reasons I’m on the Cape as opposed to a big city is the ability to have a garden, to have a house, and be around water and woods,” she says. “I think that has a lot to do with centering me.”
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