September 18, 2019

Kahane’s farewell gift to Los Angeles

Jeffrey Kahane, who steps down as music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) this season, started thinking about a series of concerts and events touching on themes of tolerance, compassion, cooperation and creativity when his tenure, the longest in the orchestra’s history, began 20 years ago. 

Finally, during the three-week, citywide “Lift Every Voice” series, which runs Jan. 14-29, his vision will be fulfilled. Among the works featured are several masterpieces by Kurt Weill and the West Coast premiere of Bruce Adolphe’s Violin Concerto “I Will Not Remain Silent” with soloist Daniel Hope. The event kicks off at the West Angeles Church on Saturday, with an evening of hymns and spirituals performed by members of the ensemble, the Leo Baeck Temple Chorus and Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, along with other local choruses and choirs.

“When I started this project, I knew it was timely,” Kahane said by phone. “I just didn’t know how timely. This festival is about having the courage to speak out against injustice and oppression and, specifically, to speak out on behalf of those who are different from ourselves.”

Kahane said he didn’t want to conclude his tenure as music director by hiring superstar soloists for a parade of spectacular concerts. “As an Angeleno, I feel a deep connection, so I wanted to do something meaningful as a parting gift to the city,” he said. 

For Kahane, the festival isn’t meant as a political statement in any partisan sense. “It springs from deep personal experiences relating to the history of my family,” he said. “There were refugees on both sides, and on my mother’s side, survivors and victims of the Holocaust.” 

Two major figures forced by the Nazis to flee Germany command the center of “Lift Every Voice”: composer Weill and Rabbi Joachim Prinz. 

“They share an inspiring parallel journey,” Kahane said. “German Jews at the center of Berlin’s cultural life, they were firebrands who had to leave. Their story incidentally parallels my mother’s, including how they embraced an American identity, learning to speak flawless English and becoming impassioned advocates for the civil rights of African-Americans.”

Kahane said the seed of the entire “Voice” project was Adolphe’s Violin Concerto. Inspired by the life of Prinz, the concerto, with Kahane leading LACO, will be performed Jan. 21 at the Alex Theatre in Glendale and the following night at UCLA’s Royce Hall. 

“The concerto encapsulates in about 20 minutes the bridge between the rabbi who saved many Jews in Berlin before he got out and the rabbi who spoke out on behalf of Black Americans,” Kahane said. 

Composer Adolphe said the concerto’s first movement evokes Nazi Germany, with the solo violin inflected with cantorial music representing Prinz. The second movement takes Prinz to the America of protest songs and spirituals.“It’s almost like a theater piece,” Adolphe said, “in which each movement represents a location.”

Adolphe said Hope, born in South Africa to a mother from an Orthodox Jewish family, is the perfect violinist to play the concerto. “Daniel is an activist who uses music to make powerful statements about human rights issues,” Adolphe said.

Prinz, who died at 86 in 1988, spoke minutes before the Rev. Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., in 1963. Kahane paraphrased the rabbi’s words from that day, which have roots in the Old Testament: “The greatest tragedy is not bigotry and hatred; the most shameful thing is silence.”  

The program featuring Adolphe’s violin concerto also includes the U.S. premiere of Weill’s “Song-Suite for Violin and Orchestra,” highlighting violinist Hope and vocalist Storm Large, in her signature account of the Weill/Brecht “Seven Deadly Sins.”

Like Prinz, the outspoken Weill, whose father was a cantor, became a target of Germany’s Nazi authorities. The composer, who died at 50 in 1950, arrived in New York in 1935. Kahane is featuring music from both the German and American sides of his successful musical life, including a chamber music program of his early works at USC’s Newman Hall on Jan. 19. 

The event’s grand finale on Jan. 28-29 at UCLA’s Royce Hall features  two performances  of Weill’s final work for the stage, the choral play “Lost in the Stars,” which opened in 1949 on Broadway and ran for 300 performances.

Kahane, who is a distant cousin of the composer, said Weill was ahead of his time in terms of using opera for Broadway. Indeed, after he arrived in New York, Weill quickly became one of Broadway’s leading figures, collaborating with Ira Gershwin on the groundbreaking musical “Lady in the Dark,” and then composing “Street Scene” and “Lost in the Stars.” 

Based on Alan Paton’s 1948 novel, “Cry, the Beloved Country,” with book and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson, “Lost in the Stars” is hard to characterize. “I don’t know whether to call it an opera or a musical,” Kahane said. “It’s kind of both. Weill wasn’t interested in trying to fit into any particular category.”

Director Anne Bogart called Weill one of the great composers, whose “Lost in the Stars” continues to speak to our time. “It’s essentially Black Lives Matter,” Bogart said. “It has an absolutely gorgeous score with instrumental music and songs. Like ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ it’s about two families and how intolerance leads to tragedy.”

One of the questions raised by Kahane’s “Lift Every Voice” festival is whether music has any intrinsic moral or ethical value. 

“Music has extraordinary power,” Kahane said, “and it can be used for good or ill. When it is used for good, it has tremendous powers of connecting us with one another and with ideas and ethical values. I wanted to do something symbolic of what I believe an orchestra can and should do.”