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Kahane on a musical adventure into balance

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado
Michael BurkeConductor and pianist Jeffrey Kahane performs a piano recital Monday at 6:30 p.m. in Harris Concert Hall, as part of the Aspen Music Festival's Winter Music series.
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ASPEN ” Jeffrey Kahane is usually onstage, either as a conductor or pianist, during concerts. But at the 2007 Mostly Mozart festival in New York City, during the performance of Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov’s “Azul,” Kahane was an audience member. That perspective gave him a chance to see how other listeners responded to the work, which featured cellist Alicia Weilerstein as the soloist.

“People were profoundly moved by it,” said Kahane.

The impact he felt, both in himself and his fellow concertgoers, was enough that the next day, Kahane made calls to both of the organizations he serves as music director ” the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra ” and told them to make room on their schedules.



“I called both my orchestras and said, Let’s get this on our season as soon as possible.”

The movement was incredibly swift by the standards of the classical music world. Early last month, Kahane conducted “Azul” in Los Angeles with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, whom the piece had been composed for originally, in 2006. A week later, Kahane conducted three performances in Denver with Weilerstein, who had premiered the revised version that Kahane had witnessed in New York.




It is a phenomenon that Kahane is seeing with increasing frequency: New music matters. And not only to musicians eager for different modes of expression, or programmers anxious to find ways to connect with younger audiences. Concertgoers on the whole are approaching contemporary works with eagerness, without fear of being confronted with thorny structures or cold sounds.

“There’s a historic sea change in the last 25 years,” said the 52-year-old Kahane, who performs a solo piano recital at 6:30 p.m., Monday at Harris Hall, in the Aspen Music Festival’s Winter Music series.

He pointed out that the 2007 Mostly Mozart at which he heard “Azul” actually featured an entire sequence of Golijov works.

“It was the most intense, positive audience reaction. I remember thinking, Times have really changed. The days when new music is almost guaranteed to evoke a reaction of violence or hostility are over.”

Some of the credit for that progress can be chalked up to Kahane. Several times, the Los Angeles native has been given ASCAP’s Award for Adventurous Programming; in 2007, both the Colorado Symphony (which he has led since 2005) and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (which he has led for 12 years) took that honor. Earlier in his career, when he became director of California’s Santa Rosa Symphony, Kahane stepped into an organization that featured one short piece of new music each season. When he left a decade later, a major contemporary work was included in almost every concert. Attendance increased noticeably.

Kahane says that his aim is not only to program new music, but to juxtapose it with familiar repertoire in unusual ways, and also to resurrect older works that have been forgotten through the centuries. Monday’s concert is representative of his approach. The centerpiece is Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A major, which he calls a great masterpiece of late Schubert, and is a central part of Kahane’s piano repertoire. There are several short works apiece by Mendelssohn and Rachmaninoff.

Kahane’s fondness for new composers is amplified in the case of Gabriel Kahane, the pianist’s 27-year-old son, a Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter as well as a composer. Monday’s program includes Gabriel’s “Django,” which the elder Kahane premiered last year in Denver, as well as a short work by contemporary North Carolinian, Kenneth Frazelle.

Kahane says he is not dogmatic in his desire to promote new music. Restricting programming to new work, he said, “would be like telling a theater company they can’t do a night of Shakespeare.”

“You need both. In a very mysterious sort of way, old music and new music need one another to survive,” he continued. “If you have a culture that has no connection to the past, that’s an unhealthy thing. You have to know the past to know where you came from. And without new music, that’s not a vibrant culture. We need to have a relationship with the music of our own time.”

Another cultural arena that Kahane has had a hand in transforming is the city of Denver. Kahane says that the image of Denver as a sports-obsessed, artistic dead zone is “seriously outdated,” and he points to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, which contains some 11,000 feats in five different theaters, plus the neighboring, recently refurbished Denver Art Museum and the soon-to-open Clyfford Still Museum. The Colorado Symphony, he notes, is one of the unsung jewels of Colorado’s art scene.

“It’s a tremendous orchestra,” he said. “People think I’m prejudiced, but my artists, soloists and conductors, come through and say this really is one of the finest orchestras in America. Its reputation has really grown.”

If the organization is going to continue to thrive, it will do so largely without Kahane. Last year he announced that the 2009-’10 season would be his last in Denver; the burden of heading two orchestras ” even if the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra is a part-time ensemble ” and maintaining careers as a pianist and conductor was more than he could handle. He is currently in talks to determine what the extent of his relationship will be with the Colorado Symphony.

“At this point I need to rebalance things,” he said.

stewart@aspentimes.com


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