If there is extra buzz in the auditorium when the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's 2016-17 season launches on Saturday at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, it will be understandable. The concert, repeating Sunday at Royce Hall, begins the culmination of a 20-year labor of love on the part of respected conductor-pianist Jeffrey Kahane, who announced in 2014 that this season would be his last as LACO's longest-serving music director.
"When you are a music director for 20 years, your stamp on the artistic vision of that orchestra is huge and far-reaching," said Margaret Batjer, LACO's concertmaster. "There's a certain magic that happens with this orchestra and Jeffrey when he sits at the piano. We understand his language and he understands us, and it's so comfortable — and so profound musically."
This weekend's launch, "Bach @ Beethoven 7," includes works by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and noted Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian, whose Violin Concerto No. 2 ("Four Serious Songs") will feature LACO's guest artist-in-residence, violinist Movses Pogossian, a Tchaikovsky Competition winner.
It is the start of Kahane's highly personal farewell season of concerts and events. In March, Kahane will conduct Brahm's Piano Concerto No. 2, with Jon Kimura Parker at the piano, because, when he first heard it at the age of 14, he said, "it was a turning point in my sense of what music could be. I think that piece gave me a special incentive to really commit myself to the work that it would take being a pianist. It's also a special occasion," Kahane noted, "because it's never been performed by the Chamber Orchestra."
For the season finale in May, Kahane is including Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 27 as a tribute to LACO's performance over two seasons of the entire Mozart piano concerto cycle in partnership with Kahane, who conducted from the keyboard. That LACO tour de force, he said, "was central to my life with the Chamber Orchestra and to my life as a musician in general."
Among other offerings are LACO's first-time performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, with the Los Angeles Master Chorale; world premieres of LACO-commissioned works by "Invisible Cities" composer Christopher Cerrone (part of the finale) and Julia Adolphe; and West Coast premieres of Albert Schnelzer's "A Freak in Burbank" and Adam Schoenberg's "Scatter."
The centerpiece of the season, "Lift Every Voice," a three-week festival curated by Kahane, will take place in January at numerous venues. Two years in the making, this multifaceted event was inspired by composer Kurt Weill and civil rights activist Rabbi Joachim Prinz, Kahane said, and their "concerns for the oppressed and the persecuted.
"Each of them in his own way dedicated himself for a good part of his life to those causes, and this series of concerts, this festival celebrates their legacies in a number of different ways," he said. "Lift Every Voice" is also personal to Kahane's own family history. Like Weill and Prinz, he said, "my mother was a refugee from the Nazis."
Highlights include the U.S. premiere of Weill's Song-Suite for Violin and Orchestra, arranged by Paul Bateman, and the West Coast premiere of Bruce Adolphe's Violin Concerto "I Will Not Remain Silent" (both with guest violinist Daniel Hope), Weill's satirical "Seven Deadly Sins," featuring chanteuse Storm Large; as well as symposia, film screenings, and a joint performance with the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles and multiple community choruses.
The "crown jewel" of the event will be Weill's "Lost in the Stars," based on Alan Paton's novel, "Cry the Beloved Country." Directed by Anne Bogart, it will be the first performance of the musical in Los Angeles since the 1950s.
"In this day and age, at this moment in our history," Kahane said, "the issues that this festival addresses" — civil rights, social justice, promoting understanding between religions and races — "are about bringing people together. This has always been at the heart of how I think about music and how I think about life."
Kahane, "a consummate musician and collaborator," Batjer said, also brought to the orchestra "a certain kind of humanity," noting that the projects he has championed, including his hallmark Discover Series (Kahane's in-depth exploration of a single masterwork through lecture and performance), "have been enormously beneficial, not just to our audiences, but to the musicians and the orchestra."
The program for the May finale will end with Schubert's Symphony No. 9 (the Great C-major), fittingly, the composer's last. "It's a piece of tremendous emotional depth and also great brilliance and joy," Kahane said. "Obviously, this is going to be a bittersweet occasion for me, as is the whole season, but I wanted to end on a joyous note."
Not that Kahane is retiring any time soon. He will maintain his busy tour schedule as a solo pianist, he just signed on as the Sarasota Music Festival's music director, and last year Kahane was named artistic director of the Green Music Center ChamberFest in Sonoma. He will continue teaching at USC's Thornton School of Music as a professor of keyboard studies, and he is in discussions to co-teach a course at USC on the connection between music and ancient classics of literature. (An accomplished linguist, Kahane received a masters degree in classics in 2011.)
Nor is Kahane saying a permanent farewell to the orchestra that he has shepherded for two decades. As LACO's first conductor laureate (a seven-year term), Kahane will return annually for at least one program "of one sort of another," he said. "I'm filled with gratitude that I've had this privilege of working with such an amazing group of musicians all of these years," and to be LACO's "first-ever conductor laureate," he added, "is very meaningful, because it's an indication of their ongoing faith in me and their desire to continue a relationship."
What: "Bach & Beethoven 7," Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
When and where: Saturday, 7 p.m., Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale; Sunday, 7 p.m., UCLA, Royce Hall, 340 Royce Drive, Los Angeles
Price: Tickets start at $27.
More info: (213) 622-7001, www.laco.org.