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

The End of the Kahane Era: Five LACO musicians look back on the Music Director’s 20-year tenure and ahead to what comes next

Twenty years is a long time to hold any job, especially in the 21st Century, and particularly when that job is Music Director of a professional orchestra. Which makes it all the more remarkable that Jeffrey Kahane is only now stepping down as the artistic leader of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, a full generation after beginning.

Think back to life 20 years ago: the British ended their 156-year rule of Hong Kong and handed the colony back to China; the Motorola StarTAC flip-phone was the newest cell phone around, so hip that celebrities would wear it around their neck to show it off; the latest home entertainment innovation, the DVD, had just launched in the USA; and the Spice Girls were the pop culture phenomena.

Over at the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in 1997, what they wanted – what they really, really wanted – was some stability. LACO was coming off of tumultuous years, both artistically and financially, and many in Southern California were grateful that it existed at all.

The wary mood mirrored that of Los Angeles in general, a region that survived an early 1990s rife with the multi-year tumult of fires, floods, riots, earthquakes, and TV chases of white Broncos down the freeway. The worst seemed to be behind everyone, and people were really hoping that the light at the end of the tunnel was something pleasant and not a train barreling headlong in our direction.

Enter Mr. Kahane. The native Angeleno known more for being a star pianist than for his conducting was tapped by LACO to be its new Music Director. It was, in his own words, “a leap of faith.”

That faith has been rewarded in spades. In his two decades at the helm, he has rejuvenated the orchestra, embracing its traditions while injecting ideas of his own and modernizing its repertoire. It has been a golden era.

This coming weekend, that era comes to its conclusion as Mr. Kahane caps off his 20-year run as LACO’s Music Director with a Saturday night concert at Glendale’s Alex Theatre and another on Sunday night at UCLA’s Royce Hall.

Over the past few weeks, I sat down with five of LACO’s musicians (in order of tenure with the orchestra, longest to shortest), all of whom were hired by the man they refer to simply as “Jeff:”

  • Kristy McArthur Morrell (2nd Horn) was hired when Mr. Kahane was still Music Director Designate, before his tenure officially began, and her first concerts with the orchestra were during the final year Iona Brown, the former LACO Music Director, returned as Principal Conductor from 1995 to 1997.
  • Margaret Batjer (Concertmaster) was Mr. Kahane’s first hire.
  • Andrew Shulman (Principal Cello), former Principal Cello of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, joined LACO about midway through the Kahane era.
  • Claire Brazeau (Principal Oboe, recently promoted from 2nd Oboe) and Joachim Thomsen (Principal Flute), both of whom were hired after Mr. Kahane announced his intention to step down as Music Director.

I asked all of them about the man who hired them, his impact on LACO, and the future of the orchestra. They had much to say, and despite the diversity in their background and experience with the orchestra, the overarching consensus: he has not been a typical Music Director.

Kristy McArthur Morrell, LACO 2nd Horn

First and foremost, he’s a pianist. “In terms of getting to know the orchestra, he hadn’t been conducting for very long before starting with us.  So I feel like when he first started, he’d play piano with us and we’d collaborate in that way,” says Ms. Morrell. “And certainly over the 20 years, on the podium and with the stick, he has developed the same depth and breadth to offer us [when he wasn’t playing the piano].”

During his tenure, Mr. Kahane has led the orchestra in a number of works from the keyboard, including complete cycles of the Mozart and Beethoven concertos, plus works like the Ravel Piano Concerto in G or the chamber-sized version of Copland’s Appalachian Spring that are less likely to be done without a conductor on the podium.

Mr. Shulman recalls:   “In the Philharmonia, I used to play a lot with Vladimir Ashkenazy, and he was wonderful. For the first 18 years [of my orchestral career], I’m doing Mozart piano concertos with Ashkenazy. Then after coming here, I’m doing them with Jeff,” he says, smiling like he won the lottery twice. “Always one of the highlights [for me] is doing a Mozart piano concerto with one of those two.”

“When you play without a conductor and you’re accompanying a soloist, there’s a lot of risk involved because there is so much spontaneity,” explains Ms. Batjer, “and you have to grab that spontaneity in a hundredth of a second. This orchestra has that capacity with him, and it’s such a joy, and because of that safety net, I can just sit back and say, “Wow,” and enjoy the music. The Mozart cycle we did was always like that, and that in particular had a profound affect on me.”

“No one needs to do this,” She says, waving her hands in the air as if to conduct. “We all just get it. He’s such a profound musician that we feel safe in taking those chances.”

That feeling of safety, of trust, extends beyond his conducting at the keyboard and encompasses all aspects of his relationship with the orchestra. Ms. Brazeau sensed it the first time she heard the orchestra play while still a Colburn School student, before she was a member of LACO.

“I remember being really struck by Jeffrey’s trust. He just emits this trust in the orchestra,” she recalls. “They were playing a Haydn symphony, and I had never heard Haydn played so exciting. I was giddy. There was a scherzo part where he basically stopped conducting because the strings had this funny thing. I’m sure that comes with being with an orchestra for 20 years.”

Since joining LACO, she feels it even more. “We trust him, and he trusts us, coming into a first rehearsal and trusting us to bring the level he wants, and that frees us up to bring a higher level of creativity.”

Andrew Shulman, LACO Principal Cello

It’s a sentiment echoed by Mr. Shulman, especially in comparison to former LACO Music Director Iona Brown under whom he played when she was Director of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. “I can’t think of two more different ends of the spectrum than Iona and Jeffrey,” he says with a wry smile.

“Iona was a terrific player. She absolutely loved performing, but she was a bit of a control freak when it came to the musicians,” he explains. “It had to be her way or no way at all. She ruled – the Academy, certainly – with a rod of iron. Chamber music was not really chamber music as such,” alluding to the more collaborative and co-equal concept of the term. “It was Iona leading her colleagues in a performance of chamber music repertoire. She got great performances, but she was always terrified that something would go wrong.”

“Jeff is the complete opposite of that. He’s very inclusive and allows freedom for his colleagues. Whether he’s on the podium, conducting from the keyboard, or playing chamber music, there’s a feeling of being part of a team. Even though he has very strong musical ideas which he relays very clearly to the orchestra, there is still this feeling that he trusts everyone to do their part for the team. . . . It’s not like he is the coach, he’s more like the captain.”

It’s not a unique sentiment, with Ms. Morrell also juxtaposing Iona Brown and Jeffrey Kahane with similar observations. “Iona did not lead as a colleague. She led with, ‘These are my ideas and this is what we’re going to do.’ And she was never wrong. But she was an excellent musician and she had a great ear. I can still remember her showing us something and she paused just before the downbeat, and I wasn’t expecting it and came in a fraction early. She knew exactly who did it, and she gave me this look of death.”

“Jeff would never do any of that,” she laughs. “His first thought would be, ‘Oh my gosh, I showed that wrong,’ because he always thinks it’s his fault. Secondly, he’d think, ‘Well, she’ll never do that again.’ Maybe even, ‘Hey, that’s kind of a cool thing, we should do that.’ None of that blame, never ‘You did that wrong!’ His leadership style is very much shoulder to shoulder. He does not consider himself to be above anybody. It’s collaborative, in the truest sense.”

Even the newer members of the orchestra bring up that collegiality. Ms. Brazeau describes how she wrote an email to him recently and addressed it, “Dear Maestro Kahane.” His response was something on the order of “Hold on, just call me Jeff!” she recalls with a chuckle.

Mr. Thomsen quickly concurs, mentioning how joining LACO was so different than playing with other orchestras. “I’ve played with orchestras and didn’t know people outside the woodwind section for a long time. But this was different. Everyone in the orchestra was welcoming me, and even he came up to me said, ‘Hi, I’m Jeff.’ ”

“It’s not like he’s nice sometimes but not others,” says Ms. Morrell. “After 20 years, you really get to know a guy, and what you see and what he says, that’s really Jeff. He genuinely cares.”

 

Joachim Thomsen, LACO Principal Flute, and Claire Brazeau, LACO Principal Oboe

That said, being a friendly conductor does not necessarily make for a good conductor, especially when it comes to establishing and communicating musical ideas. Not a problem for Mr. Kahane or the orchestra.

“He has a natural authority and he is very much respected by the orchestra as a performer, whether on the piano or conducting,” explains Mr. Shulman. “And since they respect him as a musician first and foremost, they are absolutely willing to take on his ideas.”

It certainly helps that he is a skilled communicator, both with his musicians during rehearsal and to audiences.  This is most evident during LACO’s “Discovery” series in which he breaks down specific works, pointing out musical and/or cultural relationships and significance that aren’t obvious or well-known, even to LACO musicians. Having a Master’s degree in Classics gives him added depth and adds a layer of richness to his insights.

“I think one of the incredible things he does is how he can take a piece of music apart for an audience and open it up for them. I can’t think of anyone else who can do that so well,” Mr. Shulman says.

Ms. Batjer is awed by his skills too: “He has a capacity to articulate and analyze the musical component of what he does, but in a humanistic way, and that’s very rare. Musicologists try to do it, but after a few minutes, you’re snoring! Jeff keeps you engaged. I think he has the potential to be to this generation what Bernstein was to my generation.”

Mr. Thomsen points to his debut with Mr. Kahane as LACO’s Principal Flute: “I’ll never forget my first concert with him: The Seven Deadly Sins [by Kurt Weill] with Storm Large and Daniel Hope playing contemporary violin concerto named I Will Not Be Silent [written by Bruce Adolphe]. It was the day after the new President’s inauguration, and during the rehearsal Jeff said to everyone, “I feel like I should say something, but I don’t know what yet.” Then at the concert, he had this amazingly touching speech about people, love, and humanity, about how we’re all one people.”

“At the end of the concert, Storm Large sang her encore, a song she wrote about love called Stand Up for Me, and people started standing up and actually holding hands. Eventually the whole hall was standing up, and I think it was because of his way of thinking. . . . After the concert, I called my parents and told them about it and I began crying. It left such a deep mark in me.”

Of course, musicians communicate most often – and best – through the music itself, and it is this for which Mr. Kahane receives some of his highest praise.

“You can be kind of pretentious when you’re the conductor and all you do is stand above and wave your stick,” Ms. Morrell says with a chuckle. “But when you sit down and play with somebody, then we know what you’ve got. Jeff is everything you’d ever want in that regard.”

The others concur, many of them recalling the chemistry immediately evident when playing chamber music with Mr. Kahane for the first time.

Margaret Batjer, LACO Concertmaster

For Ms. Batjer, it was before she joined the orchestra in 1998. The Angelus String Quartet had asked if she’d fill in for their injured first violinist. She agreed, signing on for half their season and wrapping up at the Oregon Bach Festival where they were to play the Schumann Quintet. Mr. Kahane was the featured pianist.

“I was blown away, and I’ve played with some really great pianists. I was completely taken with his musicianship.” That experience was the catalyst for her decision to pursue the LACO Concertmaster chair.

“I hadn’t been a concertmaster since I was in school at Curtis, and by that point, I hadn’t been in an orchestra for 15 years by that time. It had never occurred to me to be in an orchestra. It wasn’t my ambition,” she surprisingly reveals. “[He] was huge for me in terms of taking the job because I knew that I’d have the opportunity to make music with someone I absolutely admire.”

For many of the others, the first time they played with Mr. Kahane was during their audition – a daunting yet exciting prospect, even for someone with the experience of Mr. Shulman. “I got to the finals and we got up on stage and played the Beethoven A major Sonata, and we just hit it off immediately like that,” he says, snapping his fingers, “We tore through that last movement. It was great, so exciting.” They’ve become regular collaborators, both inside and outside of LACO, ever since.

Ms. Brazeau remembers being mostly excited but also a bit terrified that her initial audition with LACO included playing with Mr. Kahane. “Half of the final round was playing with other woodwind players, because as 2nd Oboe, it was important to see how you’d blend. The final part was playing an English horn excerpt, part of the Ravel Piano Concerto. With. Jeffrey,” she says, pausing before each of the last two words for emphasis.

“I was nervous because I adore his piano playing SO much. So I was very distracted and nervous trying to keep my, um, stuff together,” she recalls with a big laugh.

Not long after, she found herself in another LACO audition, this time for Principal Oboe, and again playing the final round with Mr. Kahane. “It was the Mozart Wind Quintet. There were parts where I was thinking, well, either the pianist would normally lead this or the oboist would. So I was kind of like, ‘It’s a test: I have to lead this, I have to lead Jeffrey Kahane!” She laughs even harder.

Many found it hard to pick a single defining moment in Mr. Kahane’s tenure, but Ms. Batjer is quick to point to 2008 when LACO went on the road to play concerts in Paris, Vienna, Berlin, and other cities in Germany, Italy, and Spain.

“Our European tour was such a pivotal moment for the orchestra,” she emphasizes. “People were saying, ‘They’re back. This is once again one of the important organizations in the country.’ ”

While on tour, Mr. Kahane managed to charm and impress wherever he went. “Jeff speaks something like eight languages, and night after night, I wasn’t really sure where we were until he spoke to the audience in their language.   Musically, it was really a joyous time for the orchestra.”

They all acknowledge his talent for identifying excellent musicians – soloists, orchestral musicians, and composers alike – often before they are “discovered” by the wider classical music world. Pianist Lang Lang and baritone Thomas Quasthoff both made their LACO debuts before they hit the proverbial “big time” as headliners.

With regards to his penchant for championing living composers, Ms. Batjer says: “There is some new music that’s wonderful and some that is just average, and that’s okay, that’s how it is. Jeff has the ability to sniff out the better works in ways that I can’t without actually playing it. In all my years at LACO, there’s only been one time where I genuinely disagreed with him on a new work and disliked it after we performed it. That’s quite a track record.”

In addition, the three veteran musicians laud his skills at finding new talent for the orchestra, particularly the hiring of the two new woodwind principals. “They’re so good, and they’re still so young. They’re just starting and they’re going to get even better,” says Ms. Morrell.

“Jeff likes players with personalities,” Mr. Shulman explains. “Not all orchestras or music directors do, they prefer musicians who they can bend to their will, but Jeff looks for personality. I heard him say that about Joachim’s playing, and I think that’s why Claire won the Principal job. . . . [She] really showed how she was full of ideas and was the kind of solo player she could be, and I know that he really liked that.”

“They’re both terrific. I hope we can keep them,” Ms. Batjer confides.

And what will LACO be like after Jeffrey Kahane is no longer Music Director?

For starters, the search for a new Music Director is ongoing. While nobody was asked to discuss any candidates in particular, most acknowledged that LACO wasn’t going to hire someone without having seen them conduct the full orchestra at least twice. To that end, one may surmise from the list of returning guest conductors in the 2017-18 season that the leading candidates are (in alphabetical order): Douglas Boyd, Karina Canellakis, Thomas Dausgaard, and Peter Oundjian.

None is a Kahane clone, and that is on purpose. “We’re not hiring another Jeffrey Kahane. It’s not in the cards,” Ms. Batjer states clearly. “Early on, the search committee recognized that to try to do that would be ludicrous – because there isn’t one. With any new post, you want someone to come in and do something different.”

“Our mission is to find someone with an equally powerful musical statement to make who can put their own stamp on this orchestra. It will be different, there’s no question,” she says, “but it’s necessary and it can be a very good thing.”

Mr. Shulman, another search committee member, stresses the need for the winning candidate to be grounded in Classical-era composers – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven – while still thinking of the present and future.

“After 20 years with Jeff, we’re looking for another person with great musical depth.   We need somebody with a really strong understanding and experience with the core repertoire of a chamber orchestra, but also with this wonderful outward looking vision that Jeff had of commissioning new pieces and always trying to have a new work on each program. It’s such a great balance.”

Ms. Batjer can’t imagine going back to the conservative LACO programs in the “Before Kahane” epoch, and is adamant that new music continues to be part of LACO even “After Kahane”. “It’s our mission. He has made it part of our DNA and it’s not going away.”

As for the musicians in the orchestra and the future of LACO itself, opinions range from cautious optimism to absolute confidence that what makes the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra so special won’t change. At the top of this list is continuing Messrs. Colburn and Marriner’s founding vision: that LACO’s raison d’être is as a classical music oasis for freelance musicians and studio players in the region, and for the music fans who enjoy seeing and hearing them do their thing.

There’s no doubt that they and their colleagues view LACO as passion and not merely a job. “These are excellent musicians, world-class musicians. People are in this orchestra because they love it, they love playing this music, otherwise they wouldn’t be here,” says Mr. Shulman.

He contrasts that with playing in the film studios. “That work requires nerves of steel since you’re sight reading everything and every take has to be perfect. But the music itself is rarely artistically rewarding, and cues are often two minutes or less.” On the other end of the spectrum, being in a large orchestra is artistically rich and financially stable, though the 52-week obligation can turn into a grind for some. “You don’t have the same type of diversity. It’s not better or worse, it’s just different, but this is my dream job.”

In fact, that one phrase – “dream job” – was used by all five musicians to describe their current situation.

“I couldn’t do what I do if I were in a big orchestra,” says Ms. Morrell. “I love teaching and I enjoy the studio work, although I don’t do as much of it since I joined the USC faculty full-time.” But playing in LACO and in the LA Opera orchestra where she is also a member is vital to her. “I think musicians need to play this music. I certainly need to be playing this music. Otherwise, it’s not exactly healthy for you as an artist – kind of like not eating your vegetables will eventually make you sick.”

“I didn’t tell myself that I had to have this kind of career, I was just going for everything, getting into new music, getting into Baroque music,” explains Ms. Brazeau. “I wasn’t just covering my bases, I was excited about it all and seeing where it would take me. Once I got into the orchestra, I was thrilled. Freelancing opportunities kept coming up. I really enjoy the diversity. I don’t think it’s for everybody, but I’ve been enjoying it a lot. Every LACO member is like that, I think, they wear different hats. And when we all get together that one week out of the month, everybody is happy to be there. It’s very rewarding,” she says.

“I can’t imagine wanting anything more at this stage in my career,” says Mr. Thomsen.

When you’ve got your “dream job,” change can be scary, especially for musicians who have worked with someone they so clearly admire and respect like Mr. Kahane.

With his departure, Ms. Batjer is equal parts optimistic and realistic as LACO transitions from Mr. Kahane to his eventual successor: “It’s been a great ride. I’ve been happy in this position for many reasons, firstly him and the ultimate respect I have for him. That’s a huge component in being happy in a job.”

“I can’t imagine that this orchestra would hire someone I wouldn’t feel that way about. That’s my hope, that I’ll love the choice that this committee makes and that they love us.”

(Jeffrey Kahane’s final concerts as Music Director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra will be Saturday, May 20, 2017, 8pm, at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, and Sunday, May 21, 2017, 7pm, at Royce Hall at UCLA.  The program includes Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27, the world premiere of Christopher Cerrone’s Will There Be Singing, a LACO commission, and Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C major, “The Great.”  Tickets can be purchased at laco.org)

RELATED POSTS:

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Photo credits:

  • Jeffrey Kahane conducting from the keyboard:  Jamie Pham
  • Kristy McArthur Morrell:  CK Dexter Haven for All is Yar
  • Andrew Shulman:  Shawn Flint Blair
  • Joachim Thomsen and Claire Brazeau:  CK Dexter Haven for All is Yar
  • Jeffrey Kahane conducting from the podium:  Lee Salem
  • Margaret Batjer:  Michael Burke
  • Jeffrey Kahane, portrait:  CK Dexter Haven for All is Yar

 

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