Musical Musings

The Sarasota Orchestra Blog

Jeffrey Kahane, photo credit: Jamie Phan

Article from
Thursday, May 18, 2016 at 8:32 AM
By Catherine Womack

Before a concert, members of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra usually have four rehearsals. But this week, ahead of the final program of their season, they are meeting five times.

Jeffrey Kahane, the orchestra's outgoing music director, says that extra time with the orchestra is necessary to prepare Schubert's "huge and difficult" Ninth Symphony, which he'll conduct this Saturday evening at the Alex Theatre in Glendale and Sunday night at UCLA's Royce Hall. But nobody would blame him if he also just wanted to spend a little extra time with the musicians he has worked with so intimately for the past two decades.

Sitting in a wooden rocking chair in a comfortable, book-filled corner room of his Altadena home, Kahane describes his decision to leave LACO after this season –– his 20th as its music director –– as more of a gut move than a strategic one.

"It wasn't really a rational decision," he says. "And there are days when I don't even want to think about it because it's so profoundly bittersweet. The other night my wife said to me, 'Why did you do this again?' And I said I don't know. Things are going so well and my relationship with the orchestra is so positive. But change is good. Twenty is a good round number, and I'd rather do it too soon than too late."

Kahane's tenure at LACO was defined by ambitious programming of new works by contemporary composers and electric performances of the classics, compositions by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven that are so well suited for a chamber orchestra. For his final season he was given free rein to program LACO's concerts, and he largely focused on those core elements.

But midway through the season, in January, Kahane and the orchestra also produced a bold, three-week festival focused on tolerance, compassion, cooperation, creativity and peace called Lift Every Voice. The festival was the realization of a longtime dream of Kahane's to spark social change through music.

At the center of that festival was an emotionally jolting dramatic performance of Kurt Weill's opera Lost In the Stars, presented at Royce Hall. A stellar cast and brilliant staging enhanced the powerful message of the story, which dealt with race relations in apartheid South Africa. Against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement and Donald Trump's inauguration, the musical drama resounded as powerfully as the voices on stage. There were few dry eyes in the house when the curtain closed.

"I'll cherish that performance perhaps among the two or three most important moments of my life as a musician, and as a human being, too," Kahane says. "Because what happened emotionally for the audience and for the performers was so profound."

LACO concertmaster Margaret Batjer says that Lost In the Stars and the entirety of the Lift Every Voice festival is a reflection of Kahane as a person and musician.

"I think if you spoke to musicians across the country, the one thing that everyone feels about Jeff is that he's perhaps the greatest collaborator of our era," she says. "And he has this human quality that he lives his life by that is just incredibly inspiring, not just as a musician, but as a human being."

Kahane is also brilliant. In addition to being one of the country's most highly respected pianists and conductors, he is fluent in German, French, Italian and Spanish. He also loves to read in Greek, Latin and Arabic.

"I was a real nerd. I still am a nerd," he says with a laugh, recalling his childhood growing up in West Los Angeles and gesturing to the shelves of Greek and Latin texts surrounding him. As a boy, he fell in love with playing classical music at the piano early, watching his older brother take lessons. He says he was no child prodigy, but he was determined to become a classical pianist, so he diligently put in the hours of practice necessary to compete on a professional level. 

"Many of us in the orchestra feel as though when he plays Mozart it is the closest we could ever get to the way that music was intended to sound by the composer."

Margaret Batjer

Two international piano competitions in the early 1980s launched Kahane's career. In 1981, he came in fourth place at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. Two years later he won the grand prize at the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in Israel. Looking back, Kahane credits the exposure he received during the Cliburn Competition, which aired on TV and was turned into a documentary, as his biggest break.

As a classical pianist, Kahane has performed with all the country's major orchestras, and made a name for himself as an interpreter of Mozart's music in particular.

"It's almost as if he channels Mozart when he plays," Batjer explains. "The spontaneity that he gives in his performances of Mozart is highly unusual. Many of us in the orchestra feel as though when he plays Mozart it is the closest we could ever get to the way that music was intended to sound by the composer."

Kahane met his wife, Martha, at summer camp when they were both just 10 years old. "I actually proposed when I was 13," he says with a smile. They married at 22 and had two children –– their son is a composer who lives in Brooklyn and their daughter is a poet/dancer who lives in Berkeley. Jeffrey and Martha, a clinical psychologist, share their Altadena home with a friendly rescue dog named Django. It's a cozy spot with a garage-turned-piano studio out back where Kahane practices on his Fazioli piano and studies scores.

Kahane was concertizing at the piano and teaching at a university on the East Coast in his early 30s when he realized he wanted something more. There were things he wanted to do to generate social change and engagement that he did not feel he could ever accomplish as "just a pianist." He also fell in love with orchestral music. So he made a change and began pursuing conducting.

Eventually he became the music director of the Santa Rosa and Colorado symphonies. When the opportunity to go back home to L.A. and lead LACO came up, he jumped at the chance.

"It was irresistible," he says. "The idea of being a music director of this orchestra in my hometown, an orchestra that I admired so much and had such a wonderful relationship with, it was just almost too good to be true."

Kahane says size is only part of what makes a chamber orchestra special. "I think people assume that the principle difference between a chamber orchestra and a full symphony orchestra is just numbers –– LACO employs around 40 musicians whereas the LA Philharmonic employs around 100 –– but it goes way beyond that. The most important difference is the kind of playing and communication that happens on stage between the musicians. In a chamber orchestra, musicians can see almost everyone in the ensemble in their line of sight. They're not relying so much on the conductor in the moment of performance. This creates a different style of playing, and I think a different experience for the audience too."

LACO concerts are consistently intimate and special. Whether it is the size of the group, Kahane's heartfelt, honest passion or the relationship between this orchestra and its conductor, there is something palpable and powerful in the air when they perform together.

Luckily for LACO fans, the end of Kahane's tenure does not mean the end of that relationship. He will continue to teach at USC and make his home in Altadena and plans to return to the LACO stage on occasion in the future as both a conductor and performer.

Still, Batjer predicts that this weekend's concerts will be emotional for everyone, given that they are the orchestra's last with Kahane as music director. The program features the world premiere of a new work by Christopher Cerrone, a piece that was commissioned in honor of Kahane's tenure and long-time commitment to performing works by living composers. That will be followed by Kahane playing and conducting (from the piano) Mozart's final concerto. Schubert's Ninth Symphony closes the program.

"For me, this program speaks to who Jeffrey is as a musician," Batjer says. "Schubert is a the great equalizer, the divider of great musicians and not-great musicians, and that repertoire has sort of been [Kahane's] bread and butter. And of course the Mozart, where he will do his thing so brilliantly at the piano. It is where, in my opinion, his greatest music making comes out."

Kahane sounds like a proud papa when he speaks about LACO: "What happens at LACO concerts is as good as anything you can experience in L.A.," he says. "It's very different from the Philharmonic, and I do love the Philharmonic, but although LACO doesn't always get the same amount of attention, I think in terms of quality, it's equal to anything that happens in this city."

After five intense rehearsals together this week, and playing the music they do best together, these farewell concerts are likely to crackle with energy and tug at heartstrings to the very last note.

The second Saturday Symphony concert of the Sarasota Music Festival will delight audiences with Mozart's Great G Minor Symphony and Violin Concerto No. 3 performed by SMF faculty artist Alexander Kerr.

Under the baton of Brett Mitchell, Music Director of the Colorado Symphony and Associate Conductor of The Cleveland Orchestra, Kerr will resemble a singing troubadour with a gloriously exciting, alert and playful sound accompanied by the Sarasota Music Festival orchestra.

Held at the historic Sarasota Opera House, the concert titled Mostly Mozart also includes Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks.

All About Mostly Mozart, Saturday June 17, 8:00 pm:

  • Symphony No. 40 is arguably the most popular of all of Mozart's forty-one symphonies, though its common use as a ring tone in the early 2000s would certainly not have made sense to the composer.

  • All but two of Mozart's 41 symphonies are composed in major keys. The exceptions are known as "The Little G Minor Symphony," (Symphony No. 25) and "The Great G Minor Symphony," (Symphony No. 40).

  • Symphony No. 40 was composed during a frantic summer of composition just three years before his death. Contrary to the movie Amadeus, Salieri did not poison Mozart. Contemporary scholars believe that Mozart died from an unknown disease at age 35, not an uncommon age to pass in 18th century Europe.

  • Mozart was 19 years old in 1775 when his third violin concerto premiered in his native Salzburg, where he was employed as a court musician.

  • Stravinsky's Concerto in E-Flat Major is said to be named for the Dumbarton Oaks estate of American diplomat Robert Woods Bliss and his wife Mildred Barnes Bliss in Washington, DC, who commissioned it for their thirtieth wedding anniversary.

Tickets and More Information about Mostly Mozart on June 17

The first Saturday Symphony on June 10 showcases the talents of both faculty and student participants in full orchestral splendor at the historic Sarasota Opera House. New Music Director Jeffrey Kahane conducts his first Festival concert with a diverse, energetic program of music by Beethoven, Faure and Ibert.

"Those first notes of Beethoven's symphony have been heard, interpreted, and explained as all those things and more. It's the single most famous symphonic trajectory."

The Guardian

"Few symphonies cover so much ground and remain completely accessible."

Classic FM

Facts about The Triumphant Fifth Saturday Symphony concert:

  • Named one of the "Top 10 Greatest Flutists in History" by Sinfini Magazine (UK) in 2015, guest artist and 2003 SMF student participant Jasmine Choi is celebrated for her golden tone, highly sophisticated musicianship, and charismatic stage presence.

  • Choi was the first Korean musician to join the Vienna Symphony as a principal in the orchestra's storied 113-year history.

  • It is rumored that Beethoven described the famous opening notes as "Fate knocking on your door."

  • During World War II, Allied forces used Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 to signal a victorious moment, as its rhythm—short, short, short, long—matched that of the letter V in Morse Code.

  • Sarasota Orchestra musicians Greg Knudsen, co-principal trumpet, and Yoko Kita, principal timpani, will join SMF student participants and faculty artists in the Festival Orchestra.

  • Margaret Batjer, concertmaster of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra since 1998, will join the Festival orchestra as concertmaster for the evening. She is also a renowned violin soloist, chamber musician, and educator.

Tickets and More Information about The Triumphant Fifth on June 10

The countdown begins. Join us as we welcome Jeffrey Kahane as he makes his debut as Music Director of the Sarasota Music Festival June 5-24. Come explore the magical combination of youthful promise and acclaimed talent that carries a reputation as one of the finest classical music festivals in the nation. 

"Few musical works are as loved as the six "Brandenburg" Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach. These six works display a lighter side of Bach's imperishable genius."

National Public Radio

Facts about All Bach Friday Festival concert:

  • J. S. Bach composed this famous collection of six concertos between 1708-1721, although they weren't commonly referred to as the Brandenburg Concertos until 150 years later.

  • The source of the name for the concertos came from its original dedication in 1721 to Christian Ludwig, the margrave of Brandenburg.

  • Parts of the Brandenburg Concertos have been in the scores of more than 15 films, including Die Hard, Hannibal, A Bridge Too Far, and Miracle.

  • In 1977, the Voyager spacecraft included a Voyager Golden Record that contained images, natural sounds of Earth and some select musical pieces. The first movement of Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 was included for potential extraterrestrials to understand Earth culture.

  • Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 is the longest concerto of the set Bach composed, running 23 minutes. Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 is the shortest, running 10 minutes.

  • Sizes of the six ensembles vary tremendously. Concerto No. 6 is the smallest ensemble with 7 musicians on stage, while Concerto No. 2 is the largest with 43 musicians.

  • Jeffrey Kahane, new Music Director of the Sarasota Music Festival, will be conducting the entire concert from the harpsicord.

Tickets and More Information about All Bach on June 9

Sarasota Music Festival Tickets On Sale

Join us for our 2020 Festival where we celebrate Voices Unbound: Nine Centuries of Women in Music.


Written byHerald Tribune

 Literally gripping the arms of my seat, I was not the only one propelled on this rollercoaster of delightful music.  

Written byHerald Tribune

 Every section and soloist within the orchestra played their role with strength and beauty; every tree proud and tall. Tali served as an excellent guide leading the forces with assured confidence. The overall sound was lush and, yes, intense just where it needed to be.  

Written byHerald Tribune

 The Sarasota Orchestra was brimming with bubbling energy...  

Written byHerald Tribune

 A lifetime of musical moments, cinematic in scope, gave every section of the orchestra a leading role at one time or another. Chief among them was the virtuosic solo of concertmaster Daniel Jordan.  

Written byHerald Tribune

 It was a thrill ride resulting in an explosion of audience enthusiasm.  

Written byThe Observer

 Andrew Lane, the Orchestra’s Principal Pops Conductor, knows how to program a winning event and this concert had something for everyone. It also brought in a whole new audience that seemed dazzled by the performances.  

Written byThe Observer

 The Sarasota Orchestra played a program this past weekend filled with so much color, it was like visiting the Louvre.  

Written byHerald Tribune

 The performance... was exceptional, bringing new and stunning sonorities from a larger than usual Sarasota Orchestra under the dynamic leadership of Anu Tali.  

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