Gabriel Kahane Premieres His Urban Cantata with Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra



Review by Steven Woodruff 

Program cover


With two decidedly American works on LACO’s most recent program, one by Charles Ives and another by conductor Jeffrey Kahane’s son, Gabriel Kahane, it seemed something of a wrong turn or perhaps a missed opportunity to conclude the evening with the last of Haydn’s London Symphonies.  Ives’ Three Places in New England with its Yankee appeal and Kahane’s intensely personal score based on the Hart Crane poem, To Brooklyn Bridge, are a good pair. In different ways, both works put the listener in mind of personal narrative and historical memory. Three Places in New England (1914/1930) makes its point referencing deceptive and strange orchestrations of stolen melodies. Kahane’s Crane Palimpsest (2012) speaks to us with an urbanized voice that reaches as far back as Walt Whitman, though the musical context leans in the direction of a hybrid, secular cantata for the contemporary singer-songwriter.  Both works succeed by making something new out of the old.

For various reasons all of the locations from Three Places in New England are familiar to me. I’m not sure it makes the listening more rarified but I can say with certainty that the orchestral introduction to the third section, The Housatonic at Stockbridge, is as perfect a version of that river as you might hope to hear in music. The writing which took place over a period of thirty years and resulted in the pared down, chamber sized version heard on Saturday echoes techniques from other Ives works including the violin and piano sonatas, The Unanswered Question, and humorously, the blasting ending from the sprawling  Symphony No. 2.

Each of the three sections has a clear personality.  The first, St. Gaudens in Boston Common, references the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, an African American unit famed for its contributions during the Civil War. The sensibilities veer in the direction of spirituals. There is a miraculously eccentric version of The Battle Cry of Freedom carried in the flute, wonderfully played by David Shostac. The mood is oddly cockeyed and poignant at the same time.  The plodding march section resembles a funeral procession in personality, and underscores the depth of the regiment’s losses during the war. Putnam’s Camp (section two) is dedicated to rousers, Tin Pan Alley, oompah marches and a brief quotation of British Grenadiers. Vivid brass playing was front and center here.  The trombone playing throughout, by William Booth, was exceptional. The ending borrows from the earlier 2nd Symphony, with its famous smeared conclusion. The Housatonic section is picturesque if not quite programmatic in its intent. The use of separately layered strings and winds brought to mind techniques employed also in Central Park in the Dark and The Unanswered Question. The playing, though mostly secure and energetically conducted by Kahane, felt timid at times.

Gabriel Kahane’s, Crane Palimpsest, is complex music. Kahane , who was both the soloist and composer, layers his original poetry alongside Crane’s. He uses Crane’s narrative as a guide to develop his own personal narrative and a contemporary connection to the iconic bridge and the city seen through youthful, modern eyes.  His writing for the orchestra is sophisticated and at times it tended to overwhelm Kahane’s own voice, which was amplified in this performance.  Too often, the words were not clearly audible. Kahane moved back and forth confidently between his amplified acoustic guitar and piano, singing mostly from memory, while also using an ipad at the piano.

The term palimpsest is usually reserved for the contexts of visual art. Here the composer gave it a musical sensibility by superimposing not only poetic voices, but also a fully classical style in the orchestral writing against a soloist whose singing sidestepped easy categorization. The work was a co-commisson with the American Composers Orchestra and was performed in New York earlier this year.

Crane Palimpsest is organized in four large sections and includes three subsections titled Delancey Street, BMT and, The Navy Yard.  It is as ambitious as it is complex.  The mechanical problems are going to have to be ironed out. A work so dependent on text cannot afford to be compromised especially when so much of the instrumental music is so heady and even spectacular. Kahane concluded with one of his songs,  accompanying himself at the piano. He has a quiet, moody voice and his piano playing, laced with quirky rhythmic accompaniments and adventurous harmonizations, is unique. His talent in this regard places him well beyond the ken of popular singers who accompany their own vocals at the keyboard. he is , as others have said, onto something


Ives, Kahane, Haydn

If ever there was a program that challenged your interest for  revisiting a classic work like Haydn’s London Symphony (No. 104 in D major) this was it. Played with LACO’s usual clarity, the symphony was excellent, just out of place.  One could have wished for Copland or Sessions (both, like Crane and Kahane, were also Brooklynites) or even more Ives. Ives was as much a New Yorker as he was a Connecticut Yankee. And for a composer so frequently hailed as and American orchestral genius (conductor Jeffrey Kahane said as much in his remarks from the stage before the Ives on Saturday evening) it was the perfect opportunity to dive in for another round.  Haydn and London seemed, suddenly, not as exciting an option as America and its often unpredictable music and composers.

April 21, 2012

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