Review: Gabriel Kahane's take on L.A. has a Brooklyn accent

 Review: Gabriel Kahane's take on L.A. has a Brooklyn accent
Gabriel Kahane performs at the Laguna Playhouse, where his song cycle had its premiere. (Cheryl A. Guerrero / Los Angeles Times)

Haven though Los Angeles and its environs have been to classical composers for the past century, the town is seldom the subject of symphony, art song or opera. When it is, moreover, the dark side tends to show.

John Adams titled his L.A. symphony "City Noir." In Hanns Eisler's bitter "Hollywood Songbook," the angels, for whom this town is christened, smell of oil as they "feed the writers in their swimming pools every morning." Even Disneyland in Philip Glass' Walt Disney opera, "The Perfect American," is menacing.

There are the occasional star-struck exceptions, such as the unjustly neglected French composer Charles Koechlin's 1933 "Seven Stars' Symphony," with its entrancing musical portraits of Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and other film celebrities. But "Hollywood," in classical music parlance, is mainly a pejorative adjective.


Now we have Gabriel Kahane's song cycle "25 Addresses in Los Angeles," which had its premiere Saturday night at the Laguna Playhouse. It contains equal parts of angst, irony and affection and is the work of both an L.A. insider and outsider.

Kahane was born in a bungalow in Venice Beach in 1981, the year his father, Jeffrey Kahane, won fourth place in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. But he writes in his program note that his family moved east when he was 2 and early on fell into the trap of dismissing L.A. as "largely hollow and superficial."

He, of course, has connections here. His father, a native Angeleno, has been music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra since 1997. And the younger Kahane now admits a fascination with the L.A. scene, as filtered through its architecture, action films and literature. It's a fascination, though, from afar.

Mainly, Gabriel Kahane, who was guest artistic director of last week's Laguna Beach Music Festival, identifies with the Brooklyn scene. The festival was called "From Brooklyn With Love." He sang the songs in "25 Addresses" wearing an "I [heart] NY" T-shirt and cheerfully mispronounced Musso & Frank.

Kahane's musical accent is, in fact, largely Brooklynese. He exemplifies the borough's independent spirit, moving with impressive ease between the club scene, where he writes and performs indie pop songs, traditional concert halls and off-Broadway. His accomplices Saturday night were the members of yMusic, a sextet (violin, viola, cello, trumpet, flute and clarinet) of classically trained musicians who are stalwarts on the Brooklyn club and classical scene. They were joined by drummer Ted Poor and electric bassist Luke Bergman.

It is no easier to put "25 Addresses" in a pigeonhole than in a postal code. Kahane doesn't like to be pinned down. He provided no printed texts and his lyrics were not always easily understood. His brief descriptions of his dozen songs were often vague. He mentioned 11 addresses, a couple fanciful. In one song, he said he still wasn't sure whether the address should be Griffith Park or Grauman's Chinese Theatre.

All of which is to say, I'm not yet sure of what Kahane is up to, and he may not be himself. Saturday's performance has been variously described as a preview and premiere. The cycle was co-commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the program alludes to an upcoming staging.

Kahane is clearly attracted to L.A.'s dysfunctional side — he spoke of his many Mike Davis moments — which he treats as a filter for his own anxieties. He covers most things in a patina of irony. He is drawn to LAX alienation, as well as to the light and shadow of James M. Cain. In a song about the movie version of "Mildred Pierce," the address was 1 Pierce Lane.

In a song about the last house on Bunker Hill, he warned us not to get sentimental about history. He then got only slightly sentimental about history, looking back at Ambassador Hotel from the eyes of a doorman who had seen it all. Another address was on South Figueroa, where the shooting of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in 1991 helped to set the stage for the next year's riots. I think it was this song that asked why action-film villains always live in houses built by modernist masters.

Throughout the hourlong performance of "25 Addresses," Kahane moved between electric guitar, piano and electric keyboard. He favors his unnatural high register, but words come through clearly only in the lower one (thus separating meaning and emotion). His songs are deceptive, often with a simple structure but then wandering into complexity. Though every song seemed to come from some place different, his gift is for wistful, longing lyricism.

The instrumentals sounded fashioned to personalities in yMusic, not to a blended ensemble. They were always interesting.

The new cycle was introduced with a set of Kahane's earlier songs, including numbers from his album, "Where Are the Arms," and his musical, "February House." Those have grown on me, so a nebulous first impression of "25 Addresses" seemed little cause for worry. It is an advance by a growing composer and one growing in many untidy directions at once.