A family trait of making music

If conductor Jeffrey Kahane led the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra with even more vim and vigor than usual during last weekend's concert at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, he had good reason.

The program of new and familiar music on Saturday, April 21 offered not only a celebratory wind up to the deeply respected Kahane's 15th anniversary season as LACO's music director — with the group's original founder, Sir Neville Marriner, in attendance — it marked the first time that he had conducted an orchestral work by his son, Gabriel Kahane, a critically acclaimed, rising young composer, singer-songwriter and musician.

“Crane Palimpsest,” the Brooklyn-based younger Kahane's first work for full orchestra, was the evocative centerpiece of the concert. An American Composers Orchestra co-commission that premiered at Carnegie Hall in March, it was inspired by the preamble to “The Bridge,” American poet Hart Crane's epic ode to the Brooklyn Bridge and New York.

Essentially a song cycle, “Crane Palimpsest” interweaves the opening section of Crane's “To Brooklyn Bridge” with songs written and sung by its 30-year-old composer, a compelling vocalist who also performed on piano and guitar during the piece in a seamless back-and-forth shift between instruments.

The caring and respect between father and son was clear throughout the well-received performance, which ended with the pair exchanging a warm embrace. As an encore, the younger Kahane played and sang the haunting title song of his new pop album, “Where Are the Arms,” that, like his other creative endeavors, has earned critical praise.

Kahane senior also led the orchestra in dynamic performances of two bookend pieces: Charles Ives' “Three Places in New England” — a LACO first — and Haydn's Symphony No. 104, one of the orchestra's signature offerings.

Ives' ode to place that opened the concert was particularly apt. With his incorporation of themes from folk, jazz, popular and brass band music into a classical vernacular, “Ives was very much interested in breaking down the boundaries between popular idioms and what we call classical music,” Jeffrey Kahane noted during an interview prior to the concert.

Similarly, “Crane Palimpsest,” he said, moves fluidly between “music that we would identify as being classical in nature … and a very sophisticated kind of pop music.” Fittingly, the second word in the work's title refers to a reused parchment that reveals multiple layers of old text beneath new.

“What's going on in the piece,” Gabriel Kahane explained by phone, “is an exploration of whether a kind of formal concert language can coexist in the same space with a more harmonically open vernacular language, without it feeling disjointed.

“I think if I were to try to dissect how I ended up doing what I'm doing,” he said of his multifaceted and iconoclastic pursuits, “it would be very much a function of having grown up in a house where my dad would practice a Mozart concerto, then take a break and put on a Joni Mitchell record. His not imposing a kind of hierarchy of genre really instilled in me the idea that, as Duke Ellington said, ‘There are two kinds of music. Good music and the other kind.' “

Jeffrey Kahane, who made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1983 and is internationally known for his formidable talents as a versatile pianist and conductor, began studying piano at age 4. As a teenager, he played guitar in rock bands and wrote songs. The eclectic musical tastes that he encouraged in his son were fostered in a household where classical music may have dominated, but family concert outings included jazz, folk music and blues.

Gabriel Kahane started with violin at 4, took up piano at 7, “kind of stuck with it” until he was 12, he said, and then moved on to guitar. Returning to the piano at 16, he studied for a year at the New England Conservatory with jazz pianist Fred Hersch before going to Brown University, where he shifted his focus to classical piano, theater and acting. Then this musical polymath began writing songs and his career as a pop artist blossomed.

Among Gabriel Kahane's rapidly growing body of eclectic work are his song cycles “Craigslistlieder” and “For the Union Dead” (the latter based on the poetry of Robert Lowell); “The Red Book,” a 2010 Kronos Quartet commission; and last year's “Orinoco Sketches,” a large chamber work commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and based on the flight of Jeffrey Kahane's mother as a girl from Nazi Germany.

His piano piece, “Django: Tiny Variations on a Big Dog,” was written for his father, who performed its premiere at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall in 2009.

The younger Kahane has also made critics sit up and take notice for his work as composer-lyricist of “February House,” a new musical based on a 1940s experiment in communal living among well-known writers and artists that premiered at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre in February to glowing reviews. It opens Off-Broadway at the Public Theater next month.

The two Kahanes will join forces again at the La Jolla Music Society's Summerfest 2012 in August when they reprise a program of vocal and piano music that they performed together last year at the University of Denver.

“It's very moving for me, and I think for Gabe, too, to work together,” said Jeffrey Kahane. “Because, while we do very different things, the truth is that we really are on the same path.”

“It gets a little sentimental, our mutual admiration society,” his son said, laughing. “But I have such incredible respect for the purity of my dad's musicianship and the directness of it. It's a great reminder to me, especially in this age where it's easy to get caught up in things that don't really relate specifically to the work, to have him as a guide and model.”

LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about culture for Marquee.

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