Photograph by Michael Amsler
See You in Cee Oh: After 10 years with the Santa Rosa Symphony, Jeffrey Kahane is moving to the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.
Passing the Baton
Santa Rosa Symphony conductor Jeffrey Kahane ends on a high note
By Greg Cahill
Jeffrey Kahane's career as music director of the Santa Rosa Symphony is hitting a crescendo--the perfect time, he says, for striking up his swan song. During the past nine years, the 47-year-old Kahane has helped shape the orchestra into one the most respected in the nation, attracting younger audiences with programs that include challenging works by 20th-century and contemporary composers, luring such high-profile players as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Lang Lang, and garnering a national award for excellence in community engagement.
More recently, the SRS became one of three Bay Area ensembles taking part in an innovative program that will spawn nine newly commissioned orchestral works over the next three years, an unprecedented feat for a small regional orchestra. And after a four-year delay, construction is set to begin on a lavish $47 million concert hall that should bring the symphony to a new home on the Sonoma State University campus by fall of 2006 (see side bar below).
"Even I am sometimes surprised at the extent to which this orchestra has become nationally known as a real model for orchestras in its category," says Kahane, during a brief phone interview from the Santa Rosa home where he lives with his wife, Martha, and their two children. "True, we're not in the same category as the Boston Symphony, but there are many different kinds of orchestras in this country, and for one with an annual budget of $2 million and a season of seven subscription weeks, we are looked at as a sort of beacon. That's enormously gratifying."
So why is Kahane leaving his post, having announced recently that the upcoming 2004-2005 season, his 10th with the SRS, will be his last as music director? As reported in the April 22 edition of the Rocky Mountain News and confirmed at press time, Kahane has accepted the post as music director of the larger Colorado Symphony Orchestra as replacement to the rising star conductor Marin Alsop.
"I've always said that somewhere between 10 to 15 years would be the right amount of time for this kind of position," he muses. "No matter what kind of relationship one has with an orchestra--and I'm immensely proud of the very positive relationship I enjoy with this orchestra--there comes a time when an orchestra needs change. I wanted to do that before it became time. And I wanted to make that change in a way that feels very relaxed and leisurely."
Of course, "relaxed and leisurely" isn't a term often associated with Kahane, an affable and energetic artist who leads a whirlwind life. In addition to his duties in Santa Rosa, for the past seven years this L.A. native has served as music director of the 40-member Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (Sir Neville Marriner and Gerard Schwarz of the Seattle Symphony are among the luminaries to hold the post in the past), an ensemble that specializes in taking classical music out into L.A.'s neighborhoods.
He also is a much-sought-after concert pianist, performing with many prominent symphonies, from Cincinnati to New York to Toronto; an acclaimed recording artist regarded as one of the few capable of mastering the physical rigors of Sergei Rachmaninoff's manic Third Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (the piece that nearly killed the young David Helfgott, as depicted in the film Shine); and a popular guest conductor who in December made his debut at the podium with the mighty New York Philharmonic, the nation's premier orchestra.
"I sometimes wonder how I do it all, and so does my wife," he says with a laugh, adding that the hectic pace has contributed to his decision to cut back on his activities--at least for now. "It's a wonderful, thrilling, great life, and I often feel like the luckiest guy in the world, but I have to be kind of careful because I have a limitless appetite for learning and challenging myself.
"Every once in a while I realize that I've overdone it, and then I have to take it easy, though I do block out a fairly good amount of time every year just to chill out."
Kahane's path to the podium has been marked by many twists and turns. At age four, he started piano lessons and was exposed to all kinds of music, but rock 'n' roll took center stage in his interests. Intent on the pop life, he learned guitar and played in several rock bands. But at 15, his piano teacher introduced him to the music of Polish pianist and composer Jakob Gimpel. As a result, Kahane experienced what he has called "a reawakening" of his love for the classics. Nine years later, he found himself in the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which aired nationally on PBS-TV that season. Kahane took fourth place, and the event, he says, changed his life.
With a conducting degree in hand, Kahane began a steady ascent as a concert pianist and guest conductor. He made several appearances as a soloist with the Santa Rosa Symphony, co-founded a chamber orchestra at the Gardner Museum in Boston and eventually rose to the top of several hundred applicants vying to replace founding SRS conductor Corrick Brown.
"I've also had the opportunity to learn an enormous amount of music, and that's been the realization of a wonderful dream," he says. "One of the reasons I was drawn to conducting in the first place was a desire to learn the orchestral repertoire in great depth. It's music that I've always loved."
In the process, he has helped transform both the focus of the orchestra and the tastes of its audience--sometimes characterized as the "mink and manure set"--by introducing modern repertoire and nurturing the careers of young up-and-coming soloists.
"When I came here 10 years ago, it was safe to say that it was rare that there was more than one work by a living composer during the entire season," he says. "The repertoire was overwhelmingly 18th- and 19th-century--the audience certainly had a much more conservative outlook and taste. We've found a way gradually but relentlessly to move in the direction of bringing a great deal more. We've had a number of seasons in which the programming included a majority of music written in the last hundred years. Next season we will have a major work by a living composer on every program except one."
As part of the Magnum Opus program, Kahane has had a rare chance to commission new works for the SRS, a situation that is almost unheard of for an orchestra of its scope. But Silicon Valley venture capitalist and amateur violinist Kathryn Gould, a founding partner of Foundation Capital and featured on Forbes magazine's "Midas List" of Tech's Best Venture Investors, invested $375,000 of her own money to commission nine new orchestral works over the next three years. The Santa Rosa Symphony is one of her beneficiaries.
The landmark project was created in collaboration with Kahane and fellow conductors Alasdair Neale of the Marin Symphony and Michael Morgan of the Oakland East Bay Symphony. The program is operated under the aegis of Meet the Composer, an innovative New York-based program that since 1974 has paired aspiring composers with local symphonies as a means of expanding the repertoire of 20th- and 21st-century music.
The first three works have been created by composers Ingram Marshall, Kenji Bunch and Kevin Puts. The Marin Symphony is set to debut Puts' Magnum Opus piece, the Vespertine Symphonies, based on pop songs by the Icelandic princess Björk, on Sunday and Tuesday, May 2 and 4. And on April 17, the SRS debuted Bunch's Symphony no. 1, also known as the Lichtenstein Triptych (a tribute to the late American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein). He's an amazing young composer," Kahane says of Bunch, "one of the most talented around."
For Kahane, participation in Magnum Opus has been "fabulous . . . almost too good to be true," he says. "When a conductor finds something he is excited about, it's a wonderful thing, but then you have to figure out how to pay for it. I think Kathryn has set a precedent for other forward-thinking music lovers who might want to do something similar in the future."
While Magnum Opus obviously holds a special place in his heart, Kahane has enjoyed many other career highlights; the symphony's growing role in community outreach stands out among his accomplishments, one that he's sure to remember when he takes up the baton with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. In 2002, the American Symphony Orchestra League named SRS one of five U.S. orchestras to receive the prestigious MetLife Award for excellence in community engagement, putting the once obscure North Bay ensemble in the same company as the Los Angeles Philharmonic and other larger orchestras.
The award was in recognition of the symphony's ambitious "Child of Our Time" project, a 2002 performance of the Sir Charles Tippett oratorio, but it also served as a nod to a similar community and educational project undertaken by Kahane and the SRS two years earlier.
"A Child of Our Time," conceived and directed by Kahane, featured both the Sonoma County Bach Choir, led by Bob Worth, and the Santa Rosa High School Concert Choir, led by Dan Earl, as well as the Santa Rosa High School's ArtQuest program. It was the follow-up to the symphony's vast 1999 production of Britten's War Requiem, the pacifist opus that allowed Kahane to bring together a wide-ranging cast of hundreds from throughout Sonoma County.
"It was the symphony's first really big community project," he says, reflecting on the magnitude of the endeavor, "and, artistically, it was a huge stretch."
That 1999 production featured a far-flung gathering of musicians, singers and visual artists, from the amateur Santa Rosa High School chorus to baritone soloist Thomas Quasthoff, now a star but at the time a relative unknown making his North Bay debut.
"It was an amazing, almost magical confluence of events," Kahane says of the Britten production. "It was the realization of a dream that I'd had for a symphony orchestra to reach inside a community and actually change the way people think about things and look at the world, to use music to teach about history and raise the level of awareness of philosophical and social issues.
"Quite honestly, this was one of the reasons I'd had to branch out from being a soloist, because I believed passionately in the power of the orchestra as a symbol of a community and a way to increase community awareness.
"And, he chuckles, "it's worked!"
Before California voters approved $12.3 billion in state bonds in March for construction and renovation of public schools, backers of the measure (Proposition 55) launched a sad TV campaign showing dilapidated schools marred by broken glass, shabby walls and water-damaged ceiling tiles.
Probably few imagined that within weeks of the election, SSU would have convinced the California State University board of trustees to allocate $16.8 million for a new concert hall that critics say is a vanity project for SSU president Ruben Armiñana, whose wife, Marne Olson, is a past president of the Santa Rosa Symphony board of directors and a key supporter of the Green Music Center, the Santa Rosa Symphony's future home.
Sonoma State University has contributed the land, a parking lot and other amenities, including a soon-to-be-constructed recital hall and practice rooms that critics say the university doesn't need. Originally conceived by local hi-tech mogul Don Green, an amateur vocalist, as a modest rehearsal hall, the Green Music Center has blossomed into a splashy $47 million showcase for the SRS, which will abandon its longtime home at the Luther Burbank Center for its new digs. Green and others have raised an additional $20 million for the main concert hall, which will be built next year. Bids for the first phase of the Green Music Center construction are due in later this month.
Though leaving the SRS at the end of the 2005 season and joining the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Kahane plans to continue serving as the artistic director of the Green Music Festival, a summer celebration of orchestral and chamber music, and jazz.
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From the April 28-May 4, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.