La Verne’s Music Man
Meet the man who is not only a success within the La Verne community, but also throughout the country.
by Jaclyn Mittman
photography by Courtney Droke
The city of La Verne is home to the music man: Shawn Kirchner. His piano playing resembles a modern day Mozart, but to those who know him, he is simply a versatile composer.
As an organist, pianist, composer, singer and songwriter, Shawn has developed an impressive list of musical abilities. His gift of improvisation, interpretation, playing by ear and sight-reading places him among the most talented musicians in the Los Angeles area.
Trained in classical music, he continues to expand his musical talent to new styles such as folk, gospel, jazz and pop. Shawn has also developed what he calls “bluegrass piano,” which integrates the “virtuosity of a bluegrass band and the piano.” Another interesting ability: his use of improvisation by imitating particular playing styles of many classical composers.
Even though Shawn can imitate the styles of many composers, he still aspires to be like Mozart. He shares that Mozart was always enjoying his music and having fun. Shawn says he wants the singers and musicians to enjoy their experience when he writes music for them, similar to the way Mozart had enjoyed sharing his music. “[Mozart’s] music was always about beauty,” Shawn says. “He has always been a huge hero to me.”
Shawn delivers concert level music Sunday after Sunday for the La Verne Church of the Brethren. But aside from serving as pipe organist and pianist, he also performs with the Los Angeles Master Chorale as a tenor at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, directs his own jazz quartet and works as a freelance pianist. He also offers voice teaching and music coaching. He is a musician’s, musician. Music is Shawn Kirchner’s life. “Shawn is a patient teacher, and he inspires perfection in his students,” says Steve Biondo, ULV music department coordinator.
Shawn has always had music in his veins since his Iowa birth in 1970. He played the melodeon at age 5 and wrote his first song at 8. “It just made sense how to put the notes together,” he says.
The Church of the Brethren nurtured his musical upbringing. As a 4-year-old triplet, he sang at the church with his brother and sister. Piano lessons followed from a neighborhood woman, whom Shawn claims as his major musical inspiration, along with a junior high teacher. “I would not have a career today without that neighbor,” Shawn says. “I am a strong believer in teachers and how they influence their students.”
Other influences came from radio. He describes himself as “a sponge” when it comes to any music or style. His dad listened to country, and his mom listened to classical music, which may have triggered his love for bluegrass. Shawn lives in these musical worlds and has an open respect for others. He even went through an opera phase, which he laughs at now because while he tolerates it, he does not particularly enjoy it. Surprisingly, when Shawn matriculated at Manchester College in Indiana, he did not pursue his musical abilities, but instead majored in peace studies. He later found his way back into music, or as Shawn explains, “I had taken a detour.” Graduate school found him pursuing choral directing. Following, he was a vocal coach and pianist in Chicago. There, he played for Neil Rosenshein’s studio at the Lyric Opera’s Center for American Arts. He also worked as an accompanist in the voice studio of Elsa Charlston and Catherine Malfitano.
The University of La Verne originally brought Shawn west. With his Brethren heritage, he jumped at the opportunity and become the new choral director in 1999. He remained in the position until 2001, he says, because his love for performing made him feel stifled, and he wanted more time to write, compose and perform. Shawn won many friends at ULV. “He is a fabulous pianist, a world-class composer, particularly of choral music and songs, and, though incredibly gifted, remains humble and completely caring of others,” says Reed Gratz, chair of the ULV music department.
He joined the Los Angeles Master Chorale in spring of 2001. Since then Shawn has found the Chorale to be life changing. “The Chorale has wonderful singers and musicians who can read a level of musicianship that is challenging and inspiring,” shares Shawn. “It really is a privilege to make wonderful music.”
Shawn and the Master Chorale performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. Under the Master Chorale’s music director Grant Gershon, he has sung in several collaborations with Steve Reich, including two recordings for Nonesuch Records and in a performance at the New York City Lincoln Center, in honor of the composer’s 70th birthday.
Recently, Shawn has put most of his musical focus into songwriting. “Meet Me on the Mountain,” his latest, prompted critic Meryl Ann Butler, writer for OpEd News, to say it brings an “added dimension of emotional depth to the scenes and characters that inspired them.” Shawn says it took about five months of song writing, two days of recording and three to four months of “fine tuning” in order to complete “Meet Me on the Mountain.” The fiddler/violinist from the ‘Brokeback Mountain’ soundtrack also played on his album. “I loved the [‘Brokeback Mountain’] soundtrack,” he says. “I was really inspired by the music. The movie was also very gripping, and every character had a gripping role. It was like the songs were there, just waiting to be written.”
Shawn’s work can also be heard on many soundtracks such as “Lady in the Water,” “License to Wed,” “Horton Hears a Who,” “National Treasure II: Book of Secrets,” “Race to Witch Mountain,” “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and the upcoming “Sex in the City II.” He has been able to participate on these soundtracks because of his work with the Chorale. “You have to be involved in all aspects of music,” Shawn says regarding the Chorale. “They do all different things, and you have to be able to read music on site, so the Chorale is well set up to do movie soundtracks.”
Some of Shawn’s compositions and arrangements are performed worldwide in concert halls, churches, schools and on radio and television. “Tu Voz,” a sonnet choral setting by Pablo Neruda, premiered at the Walt Disney Concert Hall May 2007 and was commissioned by the Los Angeles Master Chorale. In Spring 2010, there will be a recording with the Los Angeles Master Chorale for a Christmas album, one-third of which will be Shawn’s arrangements.
His biggest highlights? “The honor of having the L.A. Master Chorale perform my choral pieces in various concerts.” Shawn often performs as a duo with Ryan Harrison, a tenor soloist and performing artist, in bluegrass, folk, country and gospel renditions. Ryan adds an interesting vocal dynamic to the duo, while Shawn combines his incredible talent as a pianist and a songwriter, using recreated jazz masterpieces. Ryan performed the lead vocals for “Meet Me on the Mountain.” There, Butler describes Harrison’s voice as “numinous and evocative; rich, strong and captivating.”
The duo began to further explore jazz and expand their repertoire when the jazz club Hip Kitty opened at the Packing House in the city of Claremont. Shawn’s jazz quartet is a frequent performer there, with Ryan, Robbie Davis on bass and Biondo on drums. The quartet plays classical and original jazz tunes to entertain the Hip Kitty guests. They also periodically play at the Pop Champagne and Dessert Bar in Pasadena, Calif.
“Shawn is a great musician and a rare talent as a composer and a performer,” Biondo says. “It’s always fun to play music with him because you just know it will be special. [He] is one of the finest musicians I know,” Biondo shares. “He is a great pianist as well as a soulful singer. He is a perfectionist about his own original music and very specific with regards to how any composition is performed and interpreted.”
All this praise rolls off Shawn. For him, as La Verne’s designated “Music Man,” it is all about sharing the music in you, enjoying the musical moment and living a life that only Mozart could play.
Shawn’s notable recordings
Recently, Shawn Kirchner has put his musical focus into songwriting. His impressive list of recordings include: “Enter the Light of Life,” a CBS nationally broadcast Christmas Eve special; “Glimpses of Freedom,” a fund-raising CD for the organization On Earth Peace; “Kindling Live!” and “Spark the Fire,” with the folk group Kindling; “A Choral Christmas: the Juniata College Concert Choir”; “Holy World,” original material; and, most recently, “Meet Me on the Mountain,” a mix of bluegrass, country and folk inspired by the film, “Brokeback Mountain.”