Interviews / Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra / Music News & Info: Classical

A chat with Jeffrey Kahane: with only 12 months left as LA Chamber Orchestra’s Music Director, we look back at an eventful 19 years

Jeffrey Kahane (photo by CK Dexter Haven)

Nineteen years down, one more to go. With tonight’s concert at UCLA’s Royce Hall, Jeffrey Kahane will complete his penultimate season at Music Director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

It’s a tenure that is remarkable not only for its length (which is considerable) or even the quality of the music that has resulted from it (which is consistently top-notch), but rather by the evolution and transformation that has occurred within LACO during this time.

I sat down Mr. Kahane earlier this week to reflect on his relationship with the orchestra over the years and to look forward to his plans for the near future.

—————

In June 1996, when LACO announced that then-39-year-old Jeffrey Kahane would be the orchestra’s Music Director beginning with the 1997-98 season, it would have been optimistic to think his time with the orchestra would yield such noteworthy results.

Los Angeles in the early 1990’s was, by all accounts, not the greatest time or place for many Angelenos, not least of those were folks involved with classical music. Fires, floods, riots, and earthquakes increased the general pessimism about the future of the city, leading to, among other things, a fiscal tightening. Investors of any kind were hard to come by for SoCal businesses wishing to survive, let alone grow. Finding well-heeled donors for high art was even harder.

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra was already experiencing some challenges at the beginning of that period. When they announced in 1991 that Christof Perick would replace Iona Brown as Music Director the following year, it came as a surprise, most notably to Ms. Brown who called news of her departure “a great shock.” (Cariaga, Daniel: “Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra to Replace Music Director,” Los Angeles Times; 10 Jan 1991).

By 1994, the orchestra had flirted with bankruptcy and financial woes forced the orchestra to trim the size of its season, leading Mr. Perick to downsize his title as well to “Artistic Advisor.” Further cuts in programming for the 1995-96 season were followed by Mr. Perick abandoning the post entirely.

Into the breach stepped Mr. Kahane, still known primarily as a  popular piano soloist. “I had an incredible challenge because the orchestra was, as any of the musicians who were around at the time will tell you, quite demoralized,” he observes. “It was out of the woods in one sense [because bankruptcy was avoided] but there was a long way to go to build it up to the level of financial security and presence in the city that it has today.”

He credits the orchestra’s musicians, Board of Directors, and especially Ruth Eliel, LACO’s Executive Director at the time, for enabling his success.

“I was early on in my conducting career, maybe half a dozen years or so, but people on the board and the musicians had faith in me. They took a leap and offered me the position. Looking back on it now, I really think it was really a leap of faith on their part because I wasn’t someone who came to the position with a decade or so of experience as a conductor, and certainly not as a music director. Being offered the job was one of the greatest moments of my life.”

Of course, his relationship with the orchestra began long before when he was growing up in LA and going to the Mark Taper Forum when Sir Neville Marriner was conducting this orchestra there.  “He was not yet ‘Sir’,” Mr. Kahane says, chuckling.  “I probably attended a concert in the orchestra’s first season, and I heard them over the years,” he recalls fondly. “When my career as a pianist started to take off in the 1980’s, one of my first important engagements I had as a soloist was with the chamber orchestra. I had known many of the players well for several years before that, and I developed a special relationship with the orchestra as a soloist.”

By the late 1980’s, he was doing some conducting on a limited basis, mainly from the piano. His first-ever professional experience as a conductor was at the Oregon Bach Festival in the summer of 1988. “The Oregon Bach Festival was fondly referred to for decades as ‘LACO North’ because so many of the chamber orchestra’s musicians would go to Eugene for the summer to play for Helmuth Rilling,” he explains.

They had the tradition of playing at least one concert without a conductor on the podium, and at the time the concertmaster was Kathleen Lenski, who was also LACO’s concertmaster. She suggested that Mr. Kahane lead from the keyboard since he knew the concerto better than she did. That led to further conducting at the festival, which then led to an invitation to guest conduct LACO a few years later.

In that context, the notion that a struggling chamber orchestra should hire a relatively untested conductor to lead them out of its doldrums and improve its fortunes, both artistic and financial, makes more sense. In fact, it seems less like the “leap of faith” Mr. Kahane describes and more like a shrewd gamble by both him and LACO.

—————

Jeffrey KahaneLooking back, that gamble couldn’t have paid off much better. Twenty years after his appointment, the orchestra has re-established itself as an important part of the Southern California classical music community. They perform concerts throughout LA County, with subscription concerts in Glendale and the Westside, a Baroque series at the Colburn School in Downtown, an annual concert in Pasadena at the Ambassador Auditorium, and an acclaimed “Westside Connections” series curated by Concertmaster Margaret Batjer that examines links between music and other artistic, scientific, and societal influences.

“I inherited an orchestra that played wonderfully and a loyal and dedicated audience, but it was in some ways, it was a conservative institution. There wasn’t a lot of risk taking going on. I love how we’ve taken risks since then, and almost everything has paid off.”

How did this happen?

“I was able to win the trust of the musicians, the audience, and the Board,” states Mr. Kahane. “It didn’t happen overnight, but I believed it was possible for the orchestra to regain the stature that it had and to do things new and different. The amazing thing looking back was that almost everything that I had wanted to happen actually happened: we did recordings, we took the orchestra to Carnegie Hall, we took the orchestra to Europe.”

“Most importantly, the orchestra is in a very healthy and stable position,” he asserts. “You can take an orchestra to Europe and end up a million dollars in debt. We were able to do all those things and with careful management from the board and leadership from Ruth Eliel, we did in a fiscally responsible way.”

At the core of the success are the musicians themselves, and according to Mr. Kahane, the have the ability to develop, change, and be flexible in ways few orchestras in the country can match. “Of the many things that are remarkable about LACO, one of the most remarkable things — maybe the single most remarkable – is how much it does well. To do the Baroque series, Westside Connections, and a regular subscription series with a track record of commissioning and playing new works is, if I dare say, pretty stellar,” he beams. “I asked the office to compile a list of all the premieres and commissions we’ve done, and I think it’s something like 50 for the last two decades. For an orchestra that only plays seven subscription concerts per year, that’s really quite wonderful.

It was not always an easy path, and from the beginning, there was resistance. He recalls one concert during his first season when he decided to replace a more familiar work programmed by one of his predecessors with the Copland Clarinet Concerto. “I got angry letters, one particular one that was outraged that I would put a “contemporary” work on that program,” he says as he chuckles. “If somebody would have told our audiences that 15 years later we would have been doint truly contemporary works on almost every program, I think people wouldn’t have believed it.”

And while doing more contemporary music was a goal, he clarifies that it wasn’t the biggest priority: “I didn’t want to be dogmatic in saying, ‘We have to have a contemporary work on every program.’ What I definitely didn’t want, though, was to do an overture, then a concerto, then a symphony.” Instead, he hoped people would come to a concert knowing that most likely they would walk away having felt really glad they had attended, and not necessarily because they loved everything on the program, but, as he says, “that at least one thing on the concert would be incredibly exciting.”

Frequent visitors to LACO concerts these days would probably agree with that. The audiences in Glendale or UCLA’s Royce Hall can sometimes be heard to grumble and be judgmental about a new work, but they come back to hear more. Part of that is because there isn’t one flavor of new composition style Mr. Kahane prefers over another. To paraphrase former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: he knows a good new composition when he sees it.

“I get piles and piles and PILES of scores every year,” he stresses. “I can usually tell immediately by looking at the first page of the score whether this is a composer I’m interested in. It’s impossible to explain how and why that is, but you can usually tell from the quality of a musical gesture, the energy in the gesture, and the craft with which that gesture is presented. It might not be literally one page, but certainly within the first two or three pages, you can tell whether this is written by a composer of substance.”

These composers can range from the relatively audience-friendly concerto written for him by Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Puts, to fellow pianist Timo Andres, to the harder-edged work of Ted Hearne. But he gives special recognition to LACO’s current Composer-in-Residence, Andrew Norman.

andrew_norman“I’m so glad that we were able to sign him on when we did. If it had been a year later, it wouldn’t have happened. He’s such an inspiration to me and the musicians. His career was already exploding when I engaged him, but since then, it’s gone up by a power of ten.” The two recently collaborated with the New York Philharmonic for the world premiere of Split, a work the composer wrote specifically for Mr. Kahane. The work and its performance received glowing reviews from The New York Times, and Mr. Kahane posits that “it almost certainly wouldn’t have happened without our connection at LACO.”

—————

I asked him about the funniest story or stories he recalls from his time with LACO, and he offered two.

The first occurred before he was Music Director, when he was performing as soloist in Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto during the Iona Brown era as part of a children’s concert at the Wiltern Theatre. Halfway through the piece, everyone started laughing. He tried hard to play through the distraction, but had no idea what was causing it.

“We’re playing a very serious piece of music. I was perfectly well dressed, so it wasn’t my appearance,” he remembers worrying. “I’m wondering: ‘Why are they laughing?’ I look at the audience, they’re cracking up, the orchestra is trying not to lose it.” It turns out that a big German shepherd was on stage. The stage manager’s dog got loose and was wandering in the violin section. “I had no idea, I couldn’t see it because it was happening behind me.   Very funny.”

As to an amusing memory that occurred during his music directorship, the recalls the first time Yo-Yo Ma joined hm and LACO for the Beethoven Triple Concerto (a piece they will reprise in the upcoming 2016-17 season). “I wanted to be sure we had the finest piano possible. I wasn’t satisfied with any of the Steinways that we had available at the time, so we brought out a special Hamburg Steinway, and a key on the piano broke during the first movement. A piano technician had to come out on stage between the first and second movement to pull the action out and fix the key. He did this amazingly in five minutes, the audience cheered and he got a huge ovation. Wasn’t really funny at the time, but sorta funny now. Sorta,” he says with a grin.

—————

With one year left, how is he feeling?

“It’s all very gratifying for me. Obviously, there’s going to be great sorrow leaving,” he confesses.

“I never thought I’d stay for twenty years. . . . I felt that even though I’d be perfectly happy staying here for the rest of my life, I knew it wouldn’t be right for me or the orchestra. There has to be significant and meaningful change. I don’t know what that’s going to look like which is also kind of thrilling. I really look forward to seeing who the next lucky person is that’ll be inheriting it.

When asked what he’ll miss most, it’s definitely the musicians with whom he’s partnered for these two decades. I toss out some names, and he shares thoughts:

  • Margaret-Batjer-photo-Michael-BurkeMargaret Batjer, whom he hired as concertmaster soon after taking over the orchestra: “The great thing about Margaret is that she has not only been an amazing colleague and friend, she’s been an incredibly creative force in a way that very few other concertmasters I know have been. Her idea of creating the Westside Connections series is the best example. The Strad Fest from a few seasons ago is another one. She extends herself way beyond her job description. And she’s a beautiful player and a very generous spirit. I’m endlessly grateful for Margaret.”
  • Allan Vogel, LACO’s legendary Principal Oboe who retires at the end of this season: “He’s one of a kind. Everywhere I go, absolutely everywhere in this country and sometimes beyond, whenever people realize I’m part of LACO, they ask, ‘How is Allan Vogel?’ or ‘I’ve studied with Allan Vogel!’ or ‘Do you know how lucky are you to have Alan Vogel?!!’ He’s often called ‘the soul of the orchestra,’ and it’s going to be impossible to replace him. He’s not just a great musician, he’s an amazing human being with a tremendously radiant spirit , and he’s beloved by the audience.
  • David Shostac, LACO’s longtime Principal Flute who’ll also retire at the end of this season: “He’s an incredibly loving human being, and so talented in multi-faceted ways. He’s had such a great career, not only with us, but as a jazz musician.

He interrupts me to emphasize how big a loss it is that Messrs. Vogel and Shostac are retiring at the same time. “Allan and Dave or so fond of one another, and their playing together goes back for so long. It’s not just that we’re losing one or the other of them, we’re losing the relationship between them as well.”

Allan Vogel and David ShostacDoes he worry about having to replace both of them at the same time and the synergies they brought?

“It’s a challenge,” he acknowledges. “One of the things about woodwind sections is that sometimes it takes a while for a woodwind section to cohere. As you’ve seen, sometimes orchestras will go a long time without finding a principal that’ll stick; they’ll find someone and it doesn’t quite work. Both of those positions — and Principal Horn as well — those three positions are among the most critical position in an orchestra. It’s not enough to hire a great player, you have to find someone who’s able to work well with others.”

While it will be difficult to identify musicians to succeed LACO players of that stature and history, finding new players for the orchestra is one of the parts of being a Music Director that he enjoys most. “It’s one of the great things about the job. As people have left over time for one reason or another, I’ve been able to hire some absolutely phenomenal musicians like Andrew Shulman (Principal Cello). One of the exciting things is hearing the high level of playing in some of the newer, younger players – Sandy Hughes, our 2nd flute, and Claire Brazeau, 2nd oboe, to name a couple – they’re amazing. “

There are other administrative parts about his role Music Director he won’t miss as much, but he’s philosophical about them. “You have to be the public face of the orchestra. I’ve made my peace with that. I can’t say it’s the easiest thing in the world for me; it’s not,” he reveals. “There have been times over the past 20 years that I’ve grumbled about it or felt frustrated that I had to spend so much time dealing with non-musical issues. But the way I’ve framed it in my mind is that everything I do that isn’t directly about music makes it possible for us to do all the types of things that we do.”

—————-

What does the future hold for him? More piano concerts and guest conducting engagements, perhaps even an uptick in the chamber music collaborations. In addition, “There are other things that I can’t talk about that may or may not pan out,” so stay tuned.

His studio as part of the piano faculty of USC’s Thornton School of Music will continue to grow. “This year I only had one student of my own, but I taught classes on an ad hoc basis. Next year, I’ll have a class of 4 or 5, and maybe 8 the year after that.” He also taught a class for graduate students surveying the Mozart Piano Concertos, and he may even teach conducting in the future.

And he’s confident LACO will be fine without him.

“Well, in a year, two years, the orchestra will be very different. I do believe that the ethos, the generosity of spirit is going to stay no matter who comes into the orchestra and no matter who takes over as Music Director. I’m certain that that person will be extremely different from me, but I’m fairly certain that they’ll have the same sense of partnership with the orchestra musicians.”

“The challenge for LACO over the next two decades is that the visibility of the orchestra continues to increase, that the range of the orchestra doesn’t diminish, that it stays strong and that we continue to do the things we do well.”

The “we” in his statement is not a slip up. He has always felt collegial with this orchestra and its musicians, and it’s clear that partnership will continue after his tenure as Music Director ends. Some of that will continue in an official capacity since he’ll assume the title of Music Director Laureate, and he looks forward to it.

“I can’t tell you exactly what that means as far as when I’ll be back or how much, but I’ll definitely be back. Definitely.”

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Photo credits:

  • Jeffrey Kahane:  CK Dexter Haven
  • Jeffrey Kahane with piano:  courtesy of CM Artists
  • Margaret Batjer:   photo by Michael Burke
  • Allan Vogel:   photo by Michael Burke
  • David Shostac:  Jamie Pham
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One thought on “A chat with Jeffrey Kahane: with only 12 months left as LA Chamber Orchestra’s Music Director, we look back at an eventful 19 years

  1. Pingback: LA Chamber Orchestra announces 2017/18 season | All is Yar

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