Kahane Says Adieu To LA Ensemble In Grand, Small Ways

In 20 years at the helm of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Jeffrey Kahane proved to be an eager multi-tasker.
(Kahane photos by E.F. Marton Productions)
By Richard S. Ginell

GLENDALE, CA —  When Jeffrey Kahane took the reins of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in 1997, few knew what to expect other than that he was a respected concert pianist who also did some conducting. Moreover, the orchestra had just been through an existential battle for survival, and it was uncertain as to whether they were completely out of the woods.

But Kahane stepped in, hung in there, and grew exponentially as a musician, leader, catalyst, and an increasingly outspoken member of the general community. And 20 years later, he laid down the reins in a pair of farewell concerts May 20 and 21 — both pointedly featuring Mozart’s last piano concerto (the 27th, K. 595) and Schubert’s last completed symphony (the Ninth). Unusually for Kahane, who almost always speaks to his audiences, there were no words from the maestro at the May 20 concert in Glendale’s Alex Theatre. He let others – some board members, two of the orchestra’s violinists – do the praising while he tended to the music.

During Kahane’s tenure there were 26 world premieres.

Made up of expert musicians from L.A.’s studios, the LACO always was a top-notch outfit, even during years of crisis. But Kahane not only maintained the quality, he cranked it up to an even higher level. He proved to be an eager multi-tasker, interviewing musicians and composers before concerts, often conducting from the piano or some other keyboard during scheduled performances, delivering verbal program notes from the podium, and routinely offering encores.

Kahane made the LACO a driving force for new music, inaugurating a Sound Investment commissioning program that produced 16 new compositions.  There were also 30 separate LACO commissions or co-commissions. From this stockpile, the orchestra was able to present 26 world premieres. In old music, he tried to pull off the audacious stunt of playing and conducting all 23 certified Mozart piano concertos in one season in honor of the Mozart 250th anniversary year in 2006-07. He nearly made it, but fell one concert short when he was diagnosed with severe hypertension and had to complete his cycle the following season. He’s human after all, although LACO violinist Tamara Hatwan might dispute that. “It’s terrible to be around someone who uses so much more of his brain than you do!” she quipped.

Yet the LACO remained relatively under the radar outside Southern California possibly because they hardly ever recorded, in contrast to the prolific number of albums released during the 1980s under Gerard Schwarz.  The reason was money, or shortage thereof, during a time when orchestras have to raise their own funds, or form their own labels, in order to get on record. In the 20 years of the Kahane era, a mere four CDs turn up in a search, and all but one have the orchestra taking a back seat to a soloist – violinist Hilary Hahn, countertenor Brian Asawa, and mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. In recorded examples of Kahane’s LACO on its own, the fleet, scintillating virtuosity of the ensemble and of the soloists in J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 (on the same disc that features Lorraine Hunt Lieberson) and in Pierre Jalbert’s Chamber Symphony (both released by Yarlung) make one regret that so many other fine performances weren’t heard beyond the city limits. (You can download the Jalbert here.)

Kahane chose to perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 at the farewell concert.

Meanwhile, at the Alex on Saturday night, Kahane evoked memories of his epochal Mozart project with his reprise of the Concerto No. 27 – now very legato, a bit slow in tempos, even serene, very much a performance of affectionate leave-taking. While Kahane’s playing was centered on a narrow, mid-range dynamic level, he kept things moving along.

One last LACO-commissioned world premiere in the Kahane era followed, a 12-minute piece by Christopher Cerrone called Will There Be Singing. In a pre-concert interview, Cerrone said that his new piece had “an explosive level of joy” in part as a response to the current tumultuous political climate.

Christopher Cerrone’s ‘Will There Be Singing’ received its premiere.

That may be true, yet what we actually received was a succession of repetitive patterns – dare I trot out the overused term “minimalism”? – some of them more forbidding than joyful. Gleaming, chiming strokes from the metallic percussion and sustained tones characteristic of some of Cerrone’s previous compositions framed and punctuated the patterns at the piece’s opening and closing minutes. Of the many, sometimes terrific new pieces that I have heard under Kahane’s direction, this one falls somewhere in the middle of the pack upon first hearing.

For a really “explosive level of joy,” though, it would be hard to match, let alone top, the Schubert Ninth. Like Schwarz but not like his other predecessors, Kahane hasn’t restricted his chamber orchestra to chamber-orchestra pieces; this past spring alone, he presented Beethoven’s Ninth, Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2, Mahler’s Rückert Lieder, and Schubert’s Ninth without a care as to whether his small band should compete with big orchestras. (As a matter of fact, Gustavo Dudamel was leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Schubert’s Ninth in nearby downtown L.A. at exactly the same time as Kahane was leading his performance!)

From the beautiful, swiftly paced playing of the cellos and violas in the introduction to the propulsive triumph of C major in the finale, Kahane let Schubert make his points without fussy over-interpreting or unnecessarily observing (in my opinion and that of many leading conductors) all the repeats. He made some subtle adjustments in the second movement after setting an Allegretto-like pace, the scherzo ripped along at a dashing clip, and the finale blazed sufficiently. The grandeur and gravitas of a big-orchestra version was missed, but not very much. Always giving value for money, Kahane produced an unannounced encore, Johann Strauss, Jr.’s Overture to Die Fledermaus, revved up at the close for a prestissimo finish to his 20 years at the LACO.

But this concert wasn’t a final goodbye to the orchestra, just a see-you-later, for Kahane immediately assumed the position of Conductor Laureate. (Listen to his farewell interview below.) He’ll be back at the old stand at least once a year for the next seven years, beginning March 17-18, 2018, with Jalbert’s Violin Concerto (another LACO co-commission), Respighi’s Three Botticelli Pictures, and Haydn’s Symphony No. 99. Meanwhile, the search for his successor is underway.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.