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A Felicitous Homecoming

The fiscal clouds have lifted for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and new music director Jeffrey Kahane is in command. Can the ensemble shake off its rocky recent past?

September 14, 1997|John Henken | John Henken is an occasional contributor to Sunday Calendar

Two disparate but highly scenic musical roads originating in Los Angeles--one personal, the other institutional--converge this week, when Jeffrey Kahane leads the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in the opening concerts of its 29th season. Kahane's route to podium glory has been navigated from a piano bench, while the storied path of the chamber orchestra has of late been rocky enough to pass for a quarry.

Not, of course, that Kahane and LACO meet as strangers. He has played with this orchestra before and grew up musically with some of these musicians. Kahane, who was born in Beverly Hills ("Beverly Flats," he emends) has long had durable ties to southern California, but a feeling of return nonetheless accompanies his new post.

"There is definitely a sense of coming home, in the sense of actually having an official place in the musical community," Kahane says. "I've been a regular visitor ever since I left L.A. in the early '80s; I doubt there has been a year when I haven't been here at least once in some capacity. But it's very different coming back as the music director of one of the more eminent ensembles in the area."

That ensemble is itself very different than it once was. Founded in 1968 by Neville Marriner, the orchestra's boom period--recording contracts, a roster approaching symphony size--came at about the time Kahane left L.A., in the heyday of Gerard Schwarz's tenure as music director. In the decade since, LACO's artistic reputation has remained secure, but it suffered from personnel problems, lost its prime venues (Royce Hall to earthquake damage; Ambassador Auditorium to closure), faced concomitant budget disasters, administrative turnover and downsizing.

"For a while it seemed that every story we read began, 'the troubled Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra'," says Carol Ross, LACO board president. After season cutbacks and energetic fund raising, LACO now has no deficit and no debt, Ross reports. "We're very enthusiastic about the future."

Kahane's presence contributes significantly to that enthusiasm. As the orchestra retrenched during its "troubled" years, Christof Perick, Kahane's immediate predecessor, first downgraded his post from music director to music advisor, and then left altogether at the end of the 1994-95 season. The ensuing yearlong search, Ross emphasizes, was for a true music director, not simply a conductor.

"We were looking for someone who would be not only our primary conductor, but who would provide a vision for the orchestra for the next 10 years," Ross says. "We were looking for musicianship, of course, and someone who understands the repertory of a chamber orchestra. We hoped for a musician who would play with the orchestra and whom the orchestra could admire and respect as a world-class player. We wanted someone who had a rapport with orchestra and a commitment to education, not just for school kids but the population as a whole.

"Jeffrey has all of that and more. He [auditioned at] the last concert of '95-'96 season, and orchestra members were saying to me, 'You have to get this guy!' They always play well, but you can see if they are really excited. And then, ultimately it was the sound that he created, because that's what we're all about."

Kahane came into music at an early age on the coattails of his older brother.

"When I was about 5, my parents bought a piano so that my brother could take lessons," Kahane recalls. "I was very obnoxious, demanding that I have lessons too. They started me out with little five-minute lessons, but after not a long time I was ready for lessons of my own. I started with a wonderful teacher named Howard Weisel, who still teaches here in West L.A. Then he introduced me to his teacher Jakob Gimpel. That was a real turning point, because that was my first exposure--in a teacher-student relationship--to a pianist of world-class stature, and my first real contact with the Old World and the great traditions that he came out of."

Kahane's first step out of Los Angeles was a lateral move up the coast to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where he completed a bachelor's degree in piano in 1980. He started on a master's in conducting, but the course that brings him back to Los Angeles as a rising star among American conductors took a detour, as he established one of the major piano careers of this generation.

"I was always interested in conducting," Kahane says, "it just came in and out of focus at different times. I was accepted into the Van Cliburn Competition [in 1981]. And a few months later I was in the finals, which completely, instantly changed my life, because I found myself overnight with a career. I really spent the next seven years pretty much focusing entirely on the piano repertoire."

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