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Composer mixes music traditions

Gabriel Kahane's works connect pop and classical. His dad will conduct his latest with L.A. Chamber.

April 20, 2012|Scott Timberg

A bridge, of course, is a stretch of metal or stone or something that spans, typically, a body of water. But it also unites two disparate things that would otherwise remain disconnected. So it's only fitting that what could prove a breakthrough piece for the polymath young composer Gabriel Kahane is a piece about the Brooklyn Bridge.

Kahane was led to this particular structure by his current locale -- he's part of a Brooklyn new-music renaissance -- as well as Hart Crane's 1930 poem "The Bridge," now considered a landmark of modernism.

"In my songwriting, I've always tried to write about place," the composer, 30, says by phone. "And Crane is doing that at such a high level."

The bridge at the center of "Crane Palimpsest" is more than literal. "It's also a metaphor for a bridge that connects two languages," says the composer's father, conductor Jeffrey Kahane, 55, of his son's ability to unite pop idioms with a tradition of chamber music that goes back to Haydn. "You can't call him a crossover artist -- he's not crossing from one thing to another. He's completely at home in classical music and in rock music."

Kahane the elder is speaking as more than just a proud father here: He will conduct "Crane Palimpsest" this weekend, with the group he leads, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. The orchestra, in fact, co-commissioned the piece, and though father and son have worked together before, this will be the first time Jeffrey will conduct a work of Gabriel's.

The music of Kahane the younger -- born in Los Angeles, raised in California and the Northeast -- manages then to connect coasts and musical styles as well as generations.

It would be easy to look at Gabriel's career and imagine someone who, reared like a hothouse flower by musical parents, blossomed as a child prodigy and then took a left turn into pop, forming his own kind of hybrid. And part of this is true: Gabriel Kahane's music is all over the place, but much of it is somewhere between Schubert and Sufjan Stevens. "One of the things you can say about it," says his father, "is that it is very difficult to say anything about it."

But the younger Kahane walked very much, it turns out, in the footsteps of his father, even if the two have gone in different directions. (The composer's mother, Martha, is a clinical psychologist and choral singer.) Gabriel grew up with a mix of things, hearing his father playing piano as well as his folks' Beatles and Joni Mitchell records. He found his own music as a teenager -- Irish American rappers House of Pain, Dr. Dre and Pearl Jam. Like his father, he studied music -- studying the violin at 4 and, at 7 or 8 playing, on the piano, the opening bars of Bach's "Goldberg Variations" over and over again.

Gabriel not only failed out of high school, he quit the New England Conservatory after a year. He transferred to Brown University to study the liberal arts.

It was only a happy accident -- a college friend asked him to write a musical -- that brought him back to music. The resulting show, "Straight Man" helped cement a relationship with the theater that had led most recently to his music and lyrics for the show "February House," now at New York's Public Theater.

His turning point came with the 2006 song cycle "Craigslistlieder."

Says Gabriel: "My musical identity was formed not by rigor but by sort of cobbling together -- and realizing a skill set that is uniquely my own because it's sort of fractures and fragmented."

Originally, his next work was to be a continuation of "Orinoco Sketches," a 2011 piece about his grandmother, who fled Nazi Germany, written for the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Green Umbrella series. Looking at the immigrant experience in his Brooklyn neighborhood, past and present, brought him to Crane's poem.

"Crane Palimpsest," which includes both the poet's words alongside the composer's, is scored for 40 instruments. Gabriel, who will sing and plays piano and guitar, calls it his first piece for a full chamber orchestra.

Some of his emotional responses have changed lately. Gabriel has been aware of contentions of nepotism. "Obviously, it's been sensitive," he says, explaining that the chamber orchestra was interested in working with him but that he didn't at first feel comfortable with it.

After the L.A. Phil commission, he felt liberated. "For the last couple of years it's been clear that I have my own career," he says. "Someone's gonna have an issue with it, but I don't. I'm thrilled that it does feel appropriate, because my dad is one of my favorite musicians."

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Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

When and where: 8 p.m. Saturday, Alex Theatre, Glendale; 7 p.m. Sunday, Royce Hall at UCLA

Tickets: $24-$105

Information: (213) 622-7001 or laco.org

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