The (almost) hardest-working man in classical music
With such legendary workaholic conductors as James Levine and Valery Gergiev going strong, Jeffrey Kahane can’t quite be termed the hardest-working man in classical music. But as he begins his 11th season as music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) and his third as music director of the Colorado Symphony, Kahane is giving his colleagues a run for their money. So much so that this past spring he had to cancel several weeks of concerts for health reasons.
“I was severely overworked,” a rested and recovered Kahane, 51, says now. “I had some high blood pressure, and I kind of ignored it, which I shouldn’t have done. And in the middle of last season, it got worse, and my doctor told me to cut back my workload immediately. I canceled six weeks of concerts, which was very difficult for me. I had never done anything like that before. I’d always taken pride in not canceling dates.”
Kahane, who is also an accomplished concert pianist, attributes his exhaustion less to myriad commitments than to the taxing programs he had scheduled last season, especially several LACO dates dedicated to Mozart — the tail end of a project in which he was to play and conduct over two seasons nearly all of the composer’s piano concertos.
“Just doing the Mozart would have been plenty,” said the pianist-conductor, “so doing it all was overly ambitious.” The series was to have concluded this past spring, when Kahane was convalescing. It will now end in February, with a special performance of four concertos added to this season’s LACO schedule.
Not that LACO’s new season, which begins Sept. 29 and runs through May 18, is exactly relaxed for Kahane. In late February, the orchestra is scheduled to embark on its first European tour in more than 20 years, performing in such music capitals as Paris, Berlin and Vienna during two weeks of concerts that also take it to Italy and Spain.
The tour also unites the orchestra with two compelling, and very different, soloists: noted Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Vesselina Kasarova, who will sing Mozart and Rossini arias, and composer Uri Caine, who will perform “Mosaics,” a piano concerto he wrote for LACO that had its debut at the Jazz Bakery this past May.
Caine’s music incorporates both jazz and classical elements, and he will serve as LACO’s composer-in-residence through the end of this season. The season before last, he wrote a double-piano concerto inspired by Mozart for LACO, Kahane and himself.
And the premieres keep coming at LACO. There will be another before this season concludes, a piano concerto written by the rising young composer Kevin Puts. What makes the work novel, according to Kahane, is that it marks the first time he’ll be directing a new work from the keyboard — an approach he takes regularly when performing piano concertos by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.
“Originally, Kevin was writing the concerto for himself,” Kahane recalled. “But he came to one of LACO’s Mozart concerts and said, ‘Jeff, I’ve changed my mind. I want to write a concerto for you.'”
Kahane first met Puts while teaching at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., as the budding composer was earning a doctorate there. He has previously conducted Puts’ Marimba Concerto as well as his Third Symphony, a piece inspired by the pop singer Bjork’s album “Verpertine.” Beyond the piano concerto, Kahane has commissioned a clarinet concerto from Puts, this time for the Colorado Symphony.
LACO’s season also includes a bit of cross-cultural music making, with the West Coast premiere of a Reza Vali’s “Toward That Endless Plain” on Nov. 3 and 4. The piece is a concerto for nay, a Middle Eastern flute, and conventional Western orchestra. Khosrow Soltani, a native of Tehran who trained as a bassoonist in Vienna, will perform the solo part.
Though this season features more familiar names — pianist André Watts, guitarist Christopher Parkening — LACO concerts often bring future stars to the attention of audiences. Thus the orchestra’s subscribers heard violinist Hilary Hahn, cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianists Jonathan Biss and Lang Lang before their fame.
“I have the great good fortune to have an ear to the ground and a great many wonderful colleagues,” Kahane said of his network of music-world sources, mostly fellow musicians with whom the conductor has formed strong bonds. “Even my management sends me CDs of young artists. And though it doesn’t happen often, it does happen that I hear something extraordinary from a young artist. I have a track record I’m proud of in that regard, in finding artists who are just about to make it big. But there’s also a certain amount of good luck.”
Luck alone, though, seems to have had little to do with Kahane’s success. His conducting career followed his making a name for himself as a soloist and chamber musician, activities he continues to this day. He is enormously well liked by the musicians he works with, unusual in a field where respect is far more common than affection.
His personal life also seems firmly grounded. He and his wife, Martha, a clinical psychologist, keep houses in Denver and Santa Rosa and have raised two children, Gabriel, 26, and Annie, 19.
Annie attends Northwestern University, where she’s a sophomore majoring in performance studies, a multidisciplinary subject that combines elements of dance and theater into something Kahane calls “truly cutting edge.”
Gabe inherited the music gene and is a gifted pianist and composer living in Brooklyn, where his most recent project is a musical about the life of Mohammad. “When I first heard about it,” Kahane said, “I thought, you’ve got to be kidding! But it’s actually an incredibly beautiful and powerful piece.”
Naturally, Kahane kvells over his promising kids, but that doesn’t preclude him from leavening paternal pride with humor.