Saturday’s Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra concert in Glendale featured music about places (New England, Brooklyn, and London) as set in two older pieces and one West Coast premiere. The theme worked very well, each piece on the program setting up the next one nicely. Jeffrey Kahane led everything joyously. If you were paying attention, you’d notice an extra bounce in his step and gleam in his eye as he strode to the podium, indicative of a sense of occasion perhaps — and you’d be right.
Three Places in New England by Charles Ives was receiving its long overdue LACO debut, and this would be cause enough for at least a little rejoicing. Haydn’s 104th symphony, the “London,” was closing the concert, and the presence on the program of this bouyant work would easily make most people smile. The real reason, however, behind Mr. Kahane’s upbeat demeanor was that the newer work receiving its West Coast premiere had been composed by Gabriel Kahane, the conductor’s son. Moreover, this was the first time in which a work written by the younger Kahane — not to mention featuring him as soloist — would be conducted by the older one.
You’d think that this arrangement would have happened sooner. Kahane père is currently celebrating his 15th season as LACO’s Music Director, and Kahane fils has been a composer of note — not to mention singer/songwriter of contemporary songs– for many years now. The delay was mainly due to the two wanting to wait until Gabriel’s career was sufficiently robust to be able to allay any charges of favoritism or nepotism.
Fortunately for LACO and all of us, that time has come, and the result is the orchestra’s co-commision (along with the American Composer’s Orchestra) of Crane Palimpsest. It takes Hart Crane’s paean to the Brooklyn Bridge as a starting point, with the composer/songwriter adding his own lyrics on top of it (hence, the “palimpsest” reference). In addition, the piece uses a bridge as a musical metaphor for the composer’s two styles of music — contemporary “classical” compositions vs. pop/alt rock with piano and guitar backing — coming together, passing, mixing. The composer also serves in the role as singer/guitarist/pianist.
Whispy string playing, wind-like in sound, begins the piece with more of the orchestra coming on board and eventually the soloist soon joining in, singing Crane’s original text in an art-song style and angular melody to match. Soon, the lyrics change from Crane’s to Kahane’s, and the musical style changes too, into a bona-fide jangle-pop song with Kahane playing his unaccompanied acoustic guitar while singing a radio-friendly tune. As the four movements unfolded, there was an ongoing back and forth between orchestra and soloist, and also between academic and approachable styles.
The more complex singing was evocative of Sondheim or even Al Jarreau’s vocal rendition of Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo à la Turk. In its simpler moments, it was for me easy to hear similarities to Simon & Garfunkel, The Church, and even Coldplay. Others around me in the theatre and in the lobby after the performance mentioned the likes of James Taylor, Michael Penn, Philip Phillips (?!), or even Christopher Cross (??!!!); clearly, the linkages were largely dependant on age of the listener, but that kind of cross-generational appeal gave the “popular” portions of the work a bit of a timeless quality.
There has been an ever increasing attempt to blend popular sensibilities directly into music written for an orchestra in a concert hall setting , and I can think of at least three others this year that I have heard. Gabriel Kahane’s work is the most straightforward and bold in its use of obvious pop songs right in the middle of the piece, yet it is also the most natural and organic juxtaposition of the two styles that I’ve experienced. Neither the “classical” music nor the “popular” music seemed forced, and while there are more complex and compelling individual examples of contemporary classical music or guitar-/piano-based popular music, I can’t think of a work that blends the two genres as smoothly and successfully as this one did. If I had one outright complaint, it is that the amplification of voice and guitar/piano often overwhelmed the rest of the musicians, making it very hard to hear any details in the orchestration in tutti passages.
That type of musical contrast — collision is an even better description — was set-up perfectly by the seminal Ives work. Three Places in New England is almost 100 years old, which is a bit hard to believe considering how contemporary it feels. It is kaleidoscopic, jagged yet still allowing one to comprehend bits and chunks of a more complete image: this is most obvious in the middle Putnam’s Camp movement, but is also heard in its spacious outer movements. It put Crane Palimpsest in both historical and musical context, making it less surprising or awkward than it would have without Ives as the lead in. Jeffrey Kahane and the orchestra made it sound easy — almost too easy, smoothing it out and downplaying the contrasting elements.
The Haydn’s final symphony closed the concert, and I can confidently say that Maestro Kahane’s version was as sprightly as I’ve ever heard. There was still detail and transparency, and the only time it felt rushed was when the normally dramatic pauses in the third movement seemed like quick breaths.
Random other thoughts:
- As an encore, Gabriel Kahane played “Where are the Arms” from his album of the same title. He accompanied himself on the piano, unlike the album version which he sings with guitar.
- Sir Neville Marriner, LACO’s founding Music Director, was in attendance. Before the concert began, Jeffrey Kahane acknowledged him from the stage.
- Some profiles written about Gabriel Kahane: The New York Times in 2009 (HERE) and in the Los Angeles Times this year (HERE)
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: April 21, 2012; Alex Theatre (Glendale, CA)
Jeffrey Kahane, conductor
Gabriel Kahane, voice, guitars & piano
IVES: Three Places in New England listen
GABRIEL KAHANE: Crane Palimpsest (West Coast premiere) (Co-commission with American Composers Orchestra)
HAYDN: Symphony No. 104 in D major, H. 1/104
Photo credit: Gabriel Kahane (photo by Josh Goleman)