Jeffrey Kahane

Photo by Ken Hively

Photo by Ken Hively

In the coming months, we will be featuring interviews with musicians of various backgrounds. If you are a musician and would like to be featured in our series, please contact us at thecounterpoints[@]gmail.com. A complete list of our interviews can be found here.

Jeffrey Kahane was the winner of the 1983 Arthur Rubinstein Piano Master competition, the first since the great pianist's death in 1982. Trained at the San Francisco Conservatory, Kahane is the Music Director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and has appeared as Guest Conductor with the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the San Francisco Symphony orchestras. Below is the transcript of our August 10, 2011 conversation with Jeffrey Kahane.

EH: Conductor-pianists have often boasted of the many pianistic advantages that conducting can offer. What are some of the rare insights you have gained from working as a conductor ?

Kahane: I think almost anyone who conducts and also performs as a pianist approaches the piano naturally from an orchestral standpoint. I hear most piano music orchestrally, and often as I’m practicing, I imagine orchestrating the music, sometimes trying out several different orchestrations in my mind of a given passage. It’s always stimulating to the aural imagination to think that way. The main thing is that, of course, conducting requires the ability to clearly hear every part of the musical texture. This is something that, I’m sorry to say, I find sorely lacking in the overwhelming majority of the piano students I hear when I give classes.

EH: In practice, how difficult is it to switch between the concentrations, with respect to practising, studying, and various collaborations, etc. ?

Kahane: I don’t find it difficult to switch back and forth as a general rule, but I do have to be very careful about planning my practice and study schedule, and also particularly careful about the timing of my concerts as a pianist. And physically, I don’t like to play after I conduct on the same program because the muscles involved in playing are so different. I also prefer to open a program with a concerto, then conduct the rest of the program - though I do make occasional exceptions.

Two seasons ago I decided to bring back the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto, which I played often 20 years ago, but then didn’t play for quite a while. I made certain that I began preparing it almost a year in advance, and was also very careful not to be conducting a great deal of repertoire in the weeks leading up to the to the first concerts. On the other hand, conducting Mozart and Beethoven from the keyboard has become so much second-nature that it is relatively effortless for me to move back and forth between the piano and the podium. Just last week in Aspen I played Mozart K. 503, the 25th Concerto, conducting from the piano on the first half of the concert and then conducted Mahler 4 on the second half. It was an immensely enjoyable and satisfying experience.

EH: Who are some of the artists you’ve worked with who impress with their unique qualities or work habits ?

Kahane: I suppose the qualities I admire most in musicians are curiosity, openness, passionate and unwavering commitment, and integrity. I’ve had the privilege of working with a great many wonderful musicians, too many to name more than a few. Certainly my many years of collaborating both as recital partner and conductor with Yo-Yo Ma rank among my great joys. Most recently I’ve been touring with the extraordinary violinist Daniel Hope, who is also among my favorite musicians. He exemplifies so well the qualities I’ve just outlined. Both Yo-Yo and Daniel have an insatiable curiosity about music and life, and the breadth and depth of their musicianship and their repertoires reflect that. Another musician I’ve worked with many, many times with great joy is Jon Kimura Parker. Jackie and I have played many two-piano and four-hand recitals together, and we have a very deep and special musical bond, almost telepathic. I have to also mention my beloved friends David Finckel and Wu Han, directors of the Music at Menlo Festival, who are two of the musicians I admire most in the world, for all the reasons I’ve outlined.

EH: What are some of the more memorable moments you’ve experienced at the head of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra ?

Kahane: There are so many wonderful moments over these last fourteen years that it’s difficult to pick out just a few, but I would certainly say that our performance at a sold-out Carnegie Hall with the great German bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff ranked high among them. I can also think of our European tour of four years ago when we played to enthusiastic sellout crowds in Paris, Vienna, Berlin and other European cities.

I think I’d also have to say that of the achievements with the orchestra of which I am most proud, probably the two most important are:

1) our wonderful Meet the Music series, through which thousands of school children from all over LA have the opportunity to hear the orchestra in an intimate setting - many of them hearing classical music live for the first time - and having the opportunity to interact with my colleagues and I in the orchestra.

and 2) the fact that the LACO plays with not only tremendous technical brilliance and polish but great soul and passion, fierce commitment and an exceptional sense of style. There are not many orchestras I know of that are as versatile and flexible, that can play exquisite Mozart and Bach, turn around and then play extremely complex contemporary music with equal mastery and flair.

EH: Is the future of classical music secure, in your opinion ?

Kahane: I don’t think the future of anything is secure given the precarious condition of our world today. But I am hopeful that those of us who care deeply about music and are committed and open to looking at it, exploring it in genuinely new ways, will be able to provide fertile ground for growth. There are many truly extraordinary young musicians all over the world who want to devote themselves to this very difficult but immensely rewarding life.

EH: What are your thoughts on the matter of piano technique today ?

Kahane: It depends on what you mean by technique. I had one teacher who didn’t care how perfectly or brilliantly you could play a passage. If the musical content was absent, he didn’t consider it to be good technique. He simply considered technique and musicianship inseparable, and actually I think that’s a very salutary way to look at the matter. I certainly don’t think piano technique has gotten sloppier, and I think that the overall technical level of pianism has gotten stronger, the same way that athletes now run a mile in times that were unthinkable a century ago. When Ravel wrote “Gaspard de la Nuit” it was considered the summit of technical difficulty, something only the very greatest of pianists could master. Now, there are thousands of pianists who can play that piece, and it shows up on student recitals at conservatories all over the world.

EH: Last week at the Music at Menlo festival, you performed some of the greatest and most difficult works that Chopin ever wrote. Does this particular composer come naturally to you ?

Kahane: Chopin has been at the center of my pianistic and musical life for my entire career, going back to my teenage years. I had the extraordinary privilege of studying with the legendary Polish-born pianist Jakob Gimpel, one of the truly great Chopin interpreters of the 20th century. It is impossible to overestimate what I gained from the relatively brief time I worked with him. It was a wholly different way of thinking about music than anything I’d encountered before, and in some ways anything I’ve ever encountered since. Gimpel came from an era in which metaphor, drama, poetry, imagery were the fundamental source of musical inspiration. I feel very close to a huge percentage of Chopin’s music, ranging from the ravishing early Mazurkas and Nocturnes, to the monumental late masterpieces, including the three works I performed on this program at Music at Menlo - the Barcarolle, the Polonaise-Fantasy, and the Fourth Ballade. Each of these I think ranks among the supreme masterpieces of the literature - not just of piano literature!

EH: You also performed Gabriel Fauré’s Piano Quartet in Cm. What in particular can you tell us of this beautiful piece, and what are some of your thoughts on the exquisite French master ?

Kahane: Fauré is a composer whose music I absolutely adore. I think he is hugely underrated and often misunderstood. He is thought of by some people as a kind of salon composer. There are those, of course, who think of Chopin - a great influence on Fauré - in the same way as well. But these are simply not true. Some of the Nocturnes rival those of the greatest of Chopin’s: the great D-flat Nocturne is an immensely important work, one I have played in recital often.

The First Piano Quartet is a glorious work with a great emotional and coloristic palette, and I always play it with great joy. Since this year’s Music at Menlo festival is centered around Brahms, I was delighted to discover the other day that Aaron Copland, who actually was acquainted with Fauré at the end of his life, once called him the French Brahms, and I think I know exactly what he meant. Like Brahms, Fauré was steeped in tradition and always in some ways quite progressive and visionary. The late works of his are quite astonishing. There is simply no music that sounds quite like them.

EH: Of the great pianists of the past, which do you hold in highest esteem ?

Kahane: There are too many to name, but just a few of the ones who mean most to me are Ignaz Friedman, Rachmaninoff, of course, Schnabel, Edwin Fischer, Dinu Lipatti, Alfred Cortot, and Josef Lhevinne. All for different reasons and in different ways.

EH: Is it necessary for the young to listen to the great recordings of the past ? If so, how should they be listening ?

Kahane: Any young pianist who doesn’t have the sound and style of Rachmaninoff’s playing in his or her ears, or who hasn’t heard Lipatti or Friedman or Schnabel, is simply uneducated musically and pianistically, period. I hasten to add that they are also uneducated musically if they don’t know at least some of the most important recordings of the great conductors, string players, and singers of the past as well.

EH: Returning briefly to Chopin, how old were you when you first began playing the Chopin Etudes ? Because every pianist has a different answer, which Chopin Etude is the most difficult for your hand ?

Kahane: Jakob Gimpel assigned me my first Chopin Etude when I was about 14 or 15, and I think it was the F major from Opus 10. All the Etudes are difficult, but I suppose the Etude in Sixths and the A minor Chromatic Etude from Opus 10 are the ones most challenging for my hand.

EH: Mr. Kahane, thank you for taking the time.

Kahane: Thank you, Elijah!