Our budget year ends on June 30! Make a gift today to help us reach our critical fundraising goals!

“An Aural Family Scrapbook”: Gabriel Kahane’s “Heirloom”

This holiday weekend, we welcome you to a program that explores themes of family, tradition and cultural roots centered around world-renowned father and son musicians, Jeffrey and Gabriel Kahane, as well as two works for piano and orchestra — an arrangement of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Gabriel’s own concerto written for his father.

As both a composer and singer-songwriter, Gabriel will open these concerts at the Ordway, performing selections from his own recent albums and the Great American Songbook — a collection regarded as some of the most influential American popular songs and jazz standards. Gabriel and Jeffrey will speak from the stage, drawing connections between works from the early 20th century to the present.

In what is sure to be a memorable collaboration, Gabriel will conduct his piano concerto Heirloom, written for his father Jeffrey, which he describes as “an aural family scrapbook, exploring, in its three movements, a series of inheritances”:

“Tucked away in the northernmost reaches of California sits the Bar 717 Ranch, which, each summer, is transformed into a sleep-away camp on 450 acres of wilderness, where, in 1967, two ten-year-old kids named Martha and Jeffrey met. Within a couple of years, they were playing gigs back in L.A. in folk rock bands with names like “Wilderness” and “The American Revelation.” They fell in love, broke up, fell in love again. By the time I was a child, my mom and dad had traded the guitars, flutes and beaded jackets for careers in clinical psychology and classical music respectively. But they remained devoted listeners of folk music. Growing up, it was routine for dad to put on a Joni Mitchell record when he took a break from practicing a concerto by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Johannes Brahms. That collision of musical worlds might help to explain the creative path I’ve followed, in which songs and storytelling share the road with the Austro-German musical tradition.

That tradition comes to me through the music I heard as a child, but also through ancestry. My paternal grandmother, Hannelore, escaped Germany at the tail end of 1938, arriving in Los Angeles in early 1939 after lengthy stops in Havana and New Orleans. For her, there was an unspeakable tension between, on the one hand, her love of German music and literature, and, on the other, the horror of the Holocaust. In this piece, I ask, how does that complex set of emotions get transmitted across generations? What do we inherit, more broadly, from our forebears? And as a musician caught between two traditions, how do I bring my craft as a songwriter into the more formal setting of the concert hall?

The first movement, “Guitars in the Attic,” wrestles specifically with that last question, the challenge of bringing vernacular song into formal concert music. The two main themes begin on opposite shores: the first theme, poppy, effervescent and direct, undergoes a series of transformations that render it increasingly unrecognizable as the movement progresses. Meanwhile, a lugubrious second tune, first introduced in disguise by the French horn and accompanied by a wayward English horn, reveals itself only in the coda to be a paraphrase of a song of mine called “Where are the Arms.” That song, in turn, with its hymn-like chord progression, owes a debt to German sacred music. A feedback loop emerges: German art music informs pop song, which then gets fed back into the piano concerto.

“My Grandmother Knew Alban Berg” picks up the thread of intergenerational memory. Grandma didn’t actually know Alban Berg, but she did babysit the children of Arnold Schoenberg, another German-Jewish émigré, who, in addition to having codified the twelve-tone system of composition, was Berg’s teacher. Why make something up when the truth is equally tantalizing? I suppose it has something to do with wanting to evoke the slipperiness of memory while getting at the ways in which cultural inheritance can occur indirectly. When, shortly after college, I began to study Berg’s Piano Sonata, his music — its marriage of lyricism and austerity; its supple, pungent harmonies; the elegiac quality that suffuses nearly every bar — felt eerily familiar to me, even though I was encountering it for the first time. Had a key to this musical language been buried deep in the recesses of my mind through some kind of ancestral magic, only to be unearthed when I sat at the piano and played those prophetic chords, which, to my mind, pointed toward the tragedy that would befall Europe half a dozen years after Berg’s death?

In this central movement, the main theme is introduced by a wounded-sounding trumpet, accompanied by a bed of chromatic harmony that wouldn’t be out of place in Berg’s musical universe. By movement’s end, time has run counterclockwise, and the same tune is heard in a nocturnal, Brahmsian mode, discomfited by interjections from the woodwinds, which inhabit a different, and perhaps less guileless, temporal plane.

To close, we have a kind of fiddle-tune rondo, an unabashed celebration of childhood innocence. In March of 2020, my family and I were marooned in Portland, Oregon, as the world was brought to its knees by the coronavirus pandemic. Separated from our belongings — and thus all of our daughter’s toys, which were back in our apartment in Brooklyn — my ever resourceful partner, Emma, fashioned a “vehicle” out of an empty diaper box, on which she majusculed the words vera’s chicken-powered transit machine. (Vera had by that point developed a strong affinity for chicken and preferred to eat it in some form thrice daily.) We would push her around the floor in her transit machine, resulting in peals of laughter and squeals of delight. In this brief finale, laughter and joy are the prevailing modes, but not without a bit of mystery. I have some idea of what I have inherited from my ancestors. What I will hand down to my daughter remains, for the time being, a wondrous unknown.

Heirloom is dedicated with love, admiration, gratitude, and awe, to my father, Jeffrey Kahane.”

The themes of family and generational inheritance are familiar territory for Kahane. In 2017, the SPCO and Kahane performed Orinoco Sketches written in 2011 for the LA Phil as a memorial for his grandmother, Hannelore Kahane. This weekend’s performances will feature works that continue to draw on ideas of family and connection.

Tickets + Info

Photo courtesy Gabriel Kahane