An Evening with Jeffrey and Gabriel Kahane
Meymandi Concert Hall, Raleigh
Saturday, September 24, 2015

I will admit—without a drop of pride—that I haven’t seen the full North Carolina Symphony perform since I was a child. Having grown up in Cary, it was an annual tradition for the fourth-grade kids to head to Meymandi Concert Hall for a morning of cultural exposure. I haven’t been avoiding the symphony; circumstance is generally to blame. So I was eager to return Saturday night for a program featuring the father-and-son tandem of Jeffrey and Gabriel Kahane. I’m more familiar with the younger Kahane’s excellent work as a contemporary songwriter, but I was excited to see a program that pushed beyond those borders, too.

In a pre-show talk with his father, Gabriel mentioned music’s potential for evoking laughter, something I hadn’t considered as applying as much to high-art music. But indeed, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major for Piano and Orchestra was a delightful romp that indicated some sort of joyous havoc within its musical flurries. Jeffrey played the piano and conducted the piece at the same time, an impressive feat for this symphony newbie.

Next, the younger Kahane joined the ensemble to premiere the commissioned piece “Hard Circus Road,” a tribute in equal measure to the touring musician and the North Carolina Symphony at large that draws its name from a 1987 symphony memoir The short work felt more in line with Gabriel’s popular-format songwriting—something you could sing along to easily but with intricate and beautiful instrumental flourishes. A few of these came courtesy of Joe Newberry, the bluegrass songwriter extraordinaire and the symphony’s director of communications, picking clawhammer banjo licks.

After “Hard Circus Road,” the orchestra cleared the stage for the Kahanes to take their seats at opposing pianos for a few Gershwin selections: “Will You Remember Me,” “Isn’t It a Pity” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.” The songs landed with a tender gravitas, and I was surprised to be so moved by their renditions. “Isn’t It a Pity,” with its curious mix of joy and regret and the Kahanes’ tense but gorgeous piano parts, was particularly striking.

After intermission, the Kahanes reconvened with the symphony to dive into Gabriel’s Guide to the 48 States, a 50-minute piece that the younger Kahane premiered in New York in 2013. The work celebrated the 80th anniversary of the Works Progress Administration; Kahane was inspired by the Federal Writers’ Project’s American Guide travel book series to write a cross-country tour of the nation.

As with Gabriel’s staging of The Ambassador at UNC last year, it wasn’t enough to simply sit there and let the music hit you. Gabriel’s Guide was dense and complex with music and text; to feel the full weight of everything, you had to be game—actively following along and paying attention. The inclusion of the text to Gabriel’s Guide with the program proved not only welcome but necessary to keep up with the piece’s fast pace—audience members flipped through the pages as church congregants might with a hymnal. The sink-or-swim feeling was a little thrilling.

As Gabriel’s Guide wound through the west and Kahane sang of cowboys, I realized that the piece was mercifully free of Copland-esque hoedown fiddle licks. Instead, across the Guide, Kahane brought his landscapes to life with more subtle methods. Breezy string parts were a prominent part of the passage about the Windy City, and parts about larger locales such as San Francisco and Manhattan felt swirling and busy.

But that hustle-and-bustle aesthetic seemed to be at odds with the nature of the country during the Great Depression. It was a miserable time for millions of people, and the American Guide books were promoting travel to those who could afford to do so—so of course, wouldn’t the writers be encouraged to paint their locales with flattering language? Gabriel’s Guide was similarly optimistic, with “Knee Play II” serving as the only passage that seemed to even entertain that reality, with its hyper-literate and pedantic narrator.

Still, Gabriel’s Guide stayed intriguing and engaging throughout, full of little surprises and trivia, like the orchestra members joining Kahane to demonstrate Sacred Harp-style singing or Kahane relaying folk tales in song. Kahane’s particular knack for bridging the folk and the formal is a significant part of what makes his works so compelling, be it large commission pieces for symphonies or his own projects. Kahane flourishes when existing in parameters of place, as with Los Angeles for The Ambassador or the United States during the 1930s and ’40s for Gabriel’s Guide; one can’t help but wonder what riveting uncharted territory the 34-year-old Kahane has yet to conquer.

If you missed Saturday night’s performance in Raleigh, the Kahanes reconvene with the North Carolina Symphony at UNC’s stately Memorial Hall tonight. Tickets are still available.