On Sunday, November 20th, at Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn, singer/songwriter/composer/pianist/guitarist Gabriel Kahane appeared in concert with the prestigious, conductor-less chamber ensemble Orpheus. Kahane is currently serving as the group’s composer-in-residence. The concert filled me with both elation and disappointment: its initial outpouring of emotion and originality degenerated into blandness during the second half.
Kahane actually did not appear until the second piece; the first excursion was a rousing performance of Paul Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 1. As Kahane said in the program notes, it’s a very playful piece, especially compared with much of Hindemith’s later work. It’s also incredibly demanding, full of fast, off-kilter rhythms and rapid switches from one group of instruments to another. Orpheus’ stellar execution of this work was especially impressive given that they work without a conductor.
Kahane wrote that he chose the piece to be first on the program because he felt a connection between it and his own work, Orinoco Sketches. This piece is based on translations into English of Kahane’s grandmother’s teenage diaries; she fled during that period from Nazi Germany, first to Havana, then eventually settling in Los Angeles. The sense of setting out on a journey is definitely present in the adventurous rhythms of both works’ first movements, and the later melancholy in Orinoco contained echoes of the third movement of Kammermusik.
I found Orinoco Sketches powerful; Kahane effectively evoked the uncertainty and fear but also excitement of his grandmother’s teenaged experiences through both his instrumentation and his singing of the text. I loved his use of energetic Cuban rhythms during the second movement. The somewhat experimental, purely instrumental transition between the Havana and Los Angeles movements was a welcome surprise, and really showed off Kahane’s chops as a classical musician. The final movement, about the narrator’s new home in Los Angeles, juxtaposed ordinary teenage experiences of first love and learning to drive with paralyzing, nihilism-inducing survivor’s guilt.
The problems began in the second act, which consisted of all eleven pieces from Kahane’s album of folk-rock songs Where Are the Arms. The first two came across as very personal and heartfelt, but in hindsight contained the seeds of the frustration that would increase as the evening wore on: over-repetition of lyrics and a lack of real participation from the members of Orpheus (Kahane brought on his own drummer, guitarist, and electric bass player). Their demonstration of virtuosity in performing Kammermusik only made their criminal under-utilization during Where Are the Arms more obvious. There was one moment when, during the bridge of a song, a swelling of strings supported a gorgeous, ethereal flute solo. The audience gave a sigh of pleasure at this innovation, but waited in vain for another such moment. For most of the act, the brass did not play at all, and the strings and winds were reduced to playing long held notes that simply reinforced the harmonies already being sounded by the band, while the three amazing Orpheus percussionists were entirely absent.
There was nothing wrong, musically, with Kahane’s songs. They fit squarely within a very important tradition. Heard on its own, much of this work is quite beautiful, if a bit repetitive. But they are not challenging or innovative in either their words, their rhythms, or their harmonies, and it was fundamentally a letdown to hear so many such songs at once, especially after the contemporary classical brilliance of Orinoco Sketches. Perhaps Kahane simply did not have time to fully re-arrange his pop songs for the ensemble? He is unquestionably an enormously talented musician, and I look forward to hearing what he writes for Orpheus in the coming months. But he currently stands with one foot in each of two worlds that, for him, remain very separated; he needs to work harder to convincingly marry his love of folk and rock to his enthusiasm for classical composition.
Matt Weber is a New York based composer, educator, and political slacktivist.