Equally at home at the keyboard or on the podium, Jeffrey Kahane is decidedly an original. He was the first to use an iPad with the New York Philharmonic, while making a guest appearance on harpsichord in 2011, yet in 2023, he still doesn’t have a website. In 2011, at age 50, the musician went back to school to study ancient Greek and Latin, earning a master’s degree in classics from the University of Colorado Boulder.
And on March 11 and 12, at Royce Hall and the Alex Theatre, respectively, Kahane reunites with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO), the ensemble he led for some two decades, to perform a uniquely mixed bag of music. In addition to presenting the California premiere of the piano concerto Heirloom, a 2019–2020 work by his son Gabriel Kahane, the elder Kahane, who was named LACO’s conductor laureate after the 2016–2017 season, will also offer selections from several Jean-Phillippe Rameau operas, as well as Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 in D Major (“London”).
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Kahane has been wowing audiences since making his Carnegie Hall debut in 1983, having given recitals in many of the nation’s major music centers, including New York, Chicago, and Boston. In addition, he’s been a soloist with esteemed orchestras such as The Cleveland Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Toronto and San Francisco Symphonies. He was also music director of the Colorado Symphony from 2005 until stepping down in 2010.
Adding to his book-length CV, the maestro was music director of the Santa Rosa Symphony from 1995 to 2005 and is currently music director of the Sarasota Music Festival, a post he has held since 2016. Kahane, whose awards include first prize at the 1983 Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition and a 1983 Avery Fisher Career Grant, is also a full-time professor in the USC Thornton Keyboard Studies Department.
Talk about a fount of energy. SF Classical Voice recently caught up with Kahane by phone from Sarasota, Florida, where he was performing a program of sonatas. Among the topics we discussed were his collaboration with his son, what it’s like returning to his beloved LACO, and what possessed him to earn an advanced degree in classics.
Is Heirloom the first work your son Gabriel wrote for you, and how did the commission come about?
It’s not the first piece. He wrote a solo piano piece for me about 12 or 13 years ago, which I asked him to write for my Lincoln Center solo recital, and it was about six or seven minutes. But this is the first large-scale work and was something we’d talked about on and off over quite a number of years. Eric Jacobsen, the director of [New York orchestra] The Knights, loved the idea of Gabriel writing a concerto for me, so we decided to form a consortium to commission the work.
That happened fairly quickly, and six institutions signed on, including LACO [and] also the Kansas City Symphony, [where I gave] the first performance in the fall of 2021. Then I did a revised version in the spring of 2022 with the Oregon Symphony, and we played it again at the Aspen Music Festival, another commissioner. In May 2024, I’ll be doing it with The Knights, and we’ll record it. It’s been tremendously gratifying. There was huge enthusiasm for the idea in the first place, and the responses have been just wonderful.
Heirloom has been called an “aural family scrapbook” in three movements, with Gabriel having described it as “a series of inheritances.” Can you please elaborate on that?
It’s not an easy thing to put into words. What I can say is that the work was very consciously intended to be both biographical and autobiographical — musical sketches, impressions of different aspects of our family history, ranging from lighthearted ones, especially the last movement, which is a portrait of Gabriel’s daughter. He has two now, but at the time he wrote it, there was only one.
The piece on the whole has a very joyful aspect to it, but there are also darker undertones, specifically in the second movement [“My Grandmother Knew Alban Berg”], which was influenced by Gabriel’s relationship with my mother. They were very close. My mother was a refugee from the Nazis, [and] she arrived here in 1939. That inheritance, the inheritance of European culture and tradition and all it entails, both the beauty and the horror, with what transpired in Germany, [even though] most of her family escaped — it’s that kind of tension that informs the entire piece.
The last movement [“Vera’s Chicken-Powered Transit Machine”] pays homage to what inheritance Gabriel has from his own parents — my wife and myself. Having grown up in the ’60s, we both share a deep-rootedness in the tradition of Western classical music, but also Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon. We come very much out of that, and I played that music as a teenager. This is a kind of reflection on the tension between traditional Western classical and folk music, folk rock, and pop music in the late 20th century.
These two languages kind of bounce off of one another and become inextricably woven into the fabric of the piece and with each other. It’s a wonderful kind of juxtaposition of evocations of memories and also musical languages and how they reflect one another. It’s a beautiful piece, and it’s been such a joy to watch the piece grow and evolve.
Also on the bill are selections from Rameau’s operas Zaïs, Les Boréades, and Dardanus, as well as Haydn’s Symphony No. 104. How do you decide what to program?
I always start with thinking about pieces I really love and want to share with my colleagues and how to balance the program. When you have something brand new to the orchestra, you want to be sure you balance that out.
The Haydn symphony the orchestra knows very well, but the Rameau is not so familiar, although I did it with the orchestra 10 years ago. It’s a matter of finding a balance of atmosphere, of finding the right kinds of contrasts, the sonority in terms of mood and emotion. There’s also a practical aspect to that question since we have a relatively limited amount of rehearsal time. You have to be careful, especially when you’re doing a new piece that’s 25 minutes long.
What will it be like for you to reunite with LACO for this concert?
It’s going to be a very moving reunion, but it’s not the first time since I’ve been back. I was supposed to do a full-scale concert a few years ago, but I did a rather small one as part of their series Close Quarters when we were all making videos during the pandemic. This will be a great reunion. There are a number of new players since I left, [and] it continues to evolve and change, but many of my very dear friends are still there. I’ll be thrilled to make music with them since we’ve had a long and wonderful run together.
It’s not every musician who goes back to school at age 50 to get a master’s in classics. What was your impetus for doing that?
There were multiple reasons why I chose to pursue that study. I had studied Greek and Latin well before I did the master’s, but I wanted to delve into those languages and the literature. The classical literature is so intricately tied up with classical music — especially the history of opera. There are other ways, as well. But my favorite example is that the author that meant more to Beethoven [than any other] was Homer. His copy of the Odyssey still survives. He deeply, deeply loved that literature.
It influenced him spiritually and the way he thought about music. The slow movement of the Seventh Symphony incorporates rhythms of Homeric meter, and this is something that many people know about. And one of Beethoven’s unfulfilled dreams was to make an opera based on the Odyssey. What survives is one tiny canon, a sketch specifically patterned on the meter of Homeric poetry. That’s just one example of many of the ways that ancient literature impacted classical music.
The history of opera from its outset — [Claudio] Monteverdi to 21st-century works — has been impacted by composers interacting with those texts, and not just Homer but Virgil. [Hector] Berlioz’s Les Troyens is based on his lifelong love for Virgil and his deep love of the Aeneid, which apparently he knew by heart. That was a big part of my motivation — that I wanted to be able to read great works of literature in the original language. It took many years of concerted effort, but I was finally able to do that.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that on May 25, you’re playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. What is it about that work, which many think of as the Mount Everest of solo piano pieces, that performers and audiences alike keep returning to?
It’s one of the great miracles of Western — I won’t even say Western — of world culture. It’s been in my repertory for 35 years or so, and this will be the third time performing it in L.A. I first did it at Royce Hall in 1999, then again at Zipper Hall at Colburn 10 years after that. It’s a piece I come back to — not every single year — but every other year or every three years. It’s a deeply purifying, cathartic experience both for the performer and for the audience.
It is one of the Mount Everests of piano works. It’s always a tremendous adventure to go out on stage and play that piece. It’s not the only piece you can say that about, but you know you’re not going to get up [from the piano] for over an hour, and it requires not just physical stamina but a kind of mental and spiritual fortitude to stay focused and be inside the piece.
Since you’re teaching at USC, what advice do you give aspiring performers and conductors?
Every student is a unique human being, so there is no kind of universal advice. But if I do give advice, I try to tailor it to what a student needs to hear in that particular moment. One universal thing is to be as well rounded as they possibly can and not to have a blinkered point of view, which is the way many musicians were brought up, but it’s not so much the case anymore.
When I went to Juilliard in the ’70s, I knew a lot of young musicians whose world was the instrument and the practice room and that was about it. That’s changed. Musicians have an appetite for an ability to speak multiple musical languages, not just a different style of what we call classical but a wide range of genres. They should be genuinely well read and interested in all aspects of culture, being engaged in the world, being of service. More importantly, they should be as open-minded as possible, to be curious, always be curious.