After 20 Years, L.A. Chamber Orchestra's Beloved Music Director Says Goodbye
Jeffrey Kahane always wanted to play music and affect social change.
Before a concert, members of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra usually have four rehearsals. But this week, ahead of the final program of their season, they are meeting five times.
Jeffrey Kahane, the orchestra’s outgoing music director, says that extra time with the orchestra is necessary to prepare Schubert’s “huge and difficult” Ninth Symphony, which he’ll conduct this Saturday evening at the Alex Theatre in Glendale and Sunday night at UCLA’s Royce Hall. But nobody would blame him if he also just wanted to spend a little extra time with the musicians he has worked with so intimately for the past two decades.
Sitting in a wooden rocking chair in a comfortable, book-filled corner room of his Altadena home, Kahane describes his decision to leave LACO after this season –– his 20th as its music director –– as more of a gut move than a strategic one.
“It wasn’t really a rational decision,” he says. “And there are days when I don’t even want to think about it because it’s so profoundly bittersweet. The other night my wife said to me, ‘Why did you do this again?’ And I said I don’t know. Things are going so well and my relationship with the orchestra is so positive. But change is good. Twenty is a good round number, and I’d rather do it too soon than too late.”
Kahane’s tenure at LACO was defined by ambitious programming of new works by contemporary composers and electric performances of the classics, compositions by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven that are so well suited for a chamber orchestra. For his final season he was given free rein to program LACO’s concerts, and he largely focused on those core elements.
But midway through the season, in January, Kahane and the orchestra also produced a bold, three-week festival focused on tolerance, compassion, cooperation, creativity and peace called Lift Every Voice. The festival was the realization of a longtime dream of Kahane’s to spark social change through music.
Kahane leads the LACO
At the center of that festival was an emotionally jolting dramatic performance of Kurt Weill’s opera Lost In the Stars, presented at Royce Hall. A stellar cast and brilliant staging enhanced the powerful message of the story, which dealt with race relations in apartheid South Africa. Against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement and Donald Trump’s inauguration, the musical drama resounded as powerfully as the voices on stage. There were few dry eyes in the house when the curtain closed.
“I’ll cherish that performance perhaps among the two or three most important moments of my life as a musician, and as a human being, too,” Kahane says. “Because what happened emotionally for the audience and for the performers was so profound.”
LACO concertmaster Margaret Batjer says that Lost In the Stars and the entirety of the Lift Every Voice festival is a reflection of Kahane as a person and musician.
“I think if you spoke to musicians across the country, the one thing that everyone feels about Jeff is that he’s perhaps the greatest collaborator of our era,” she says. “And he has this human quality that he lives his life by that is just incredibly inspiring, not just as a musician, but as a human being.”
Kahane is also brilliant. In addition to being one of the country’s most highly respected pianists and conductors, he is fluent in German, French, Italian and Spanish. He also loves to read in Greek, Latin and Arabic.
“I was a real nerd. I still am a nerd,” he says with a laugh, recalling his childhood growing up in West Los Angeles and gesturing to the shelves of Greek and Latin texts surrounding him. As a boy, he fell in love with playing classical music at the piano early, watching his older brother take lessons. He says he was no child prodigy, but he was determined to become a classical pianist, so he diligently put in the hours of practice necessary to compete on a professional level.
Two international piano competitions in the early 1980s launched Kahane's career. In 1981, he came in fourth place at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. Two years later he won the grand prize at the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in Israel. Looking back, Kahane credits the exposure he received during the Cliburn Competition, which aired on TV and was turned into a documentary, as his biggest break.
As a classical pianist, Kahane has performed with all the country’s major orchestras, and made a name for himself as an interpreter of Mozart’s music in particular.
“It’s almost as if he channels Mozart when he plays,” Batjer explains. “The spontaneity that he gives in his performances of Mozart is highly unusual. Many of us in the orchestra feel as though when he plays Mozart it is the closest we could ever get to the way that music was intended to sound by the composer.”
Kahane met his wife, Martha, at summer camp when they were both just 10 years old. “I actually proposed when I was 13,” he says with a smile. They married at 22 and had two children –– their son is a composer who lives in Brooklyn and their daughter is a poet/dancer who lives in Berkeley. Jeffrey and Martha, a clinical psychologist, share their Altadena home with a friendly rescue dog named Django. It’s a cozy spot with a garage-turned-piano studio out back where Kahane practices on his Fazioli piano and studies scores.
Kahane was concertizing at the piano and teaching at a university on the East Coast in his early 30s when he realized he wanted something more. There were things he wanted to do to generate social change and engagement that he did not feel he could ever accomplish as “just a pianist.” He also fell in love with orchestral music. So he made a change and began pursuing conducting.
Eventually he became the music director of the Santa Rosa and Colorado symphonies. When the opportunity to go back home to L.A. and lead LACO came up, he jumped at the chance.
“It was irresistible,” he says. “The idea of being a music director of this orchestra in my hometown, an orchestra that I admired so much and had such a wonderful relationship with, it was just almost too good to be true.”
Kahane says size is only part of what makes a chamber orchestra special. “I think people assume that the principle difference between a chamber orchestra and a full symphony orchestra is just numbers –– LACO employs around 40 musicians whereas the LA Philharmonic employs around 100 –– but it goes way beyond that. The most important difference is the kind of playing and communication that happens on stage between the musicians. In a chamber orchestra, musicians can see almost everyone in the ensemble in their line of sight. They’re not relying so much on the conductor in the moment of performance. This creates a different style of playing, and I think a different experience for the audience too.”
LACO concerts are consistently intimate and special. Whether it is the size of the group, Kahane’s heartfelt, honest passion or the relationship between this orchestra and its conductor, there is something palpable and powerful in the air when they perform together.
Luckily for LACO fans, the end of Kahane’s tenure does not mean the end of that relationship. He will continue to teach at USC and make his home in Altadena and plans to return to the LACO stage on occasion in the future as both a conductor and performer.
Still, Batjer predicts that this weekend’s concerts will be emotional for everyone, given that they are the orchestra’s last with Kahane as music director. The program features the world premiere of a new work by Christopher Cerrone, a piece that was commissioned in honor of Kahane’s tenure and long-time commitment to performing works by living composers. That will be followed by Kahane playing and conducting (from the piano) Mozart’s final concerto. Schubert’s Ninth Symphony closes the program.
“For me, this program speaks to who Jeffrey is as a musician,” Batjer says. “Schubert is a the great equalizer, the divider of great musicians and not-great musicians, and that repertoire has sort of been [Kahane’s] bread and butter. And of course the Mozart, where he will do his thing so brilliantly at the piano. It is where, in my opinion, his greatest music making comes out.”
Kahane sounds like a proud papa when he speaks about LACO: “What happens at LACO concerts is as good as anything you can experience in L.A.,” he says. “It’s very different from the Philharmonic, and I do love the Philharmonic, but although LACO doesn’t always get the same amount of attention, I think in terms of quality, it’s equal to anything that happens in this city.”
After five intense rehearsals together this week, and playing the music they do best together, these farewell concerts are likely to crackle with energy and tug at heartstrings to the very last note.
Kahane Plays Mozart, Sat., May 20, 8 p.m. at Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale & Sun., May 21, 7:30 p.m. at UCLA's Royce Hall, 340 Royce Drive, Westwood. laco.org/attend/kahane-plays-mozart.
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