The Oregon Symphony’s concert (December 7) featuring Danish conductor Christian Kluxen and newly orchestrated works by pianist-singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane offered a lot of interesting contrasts. Kahane’s pieces presented a somber and melancholic world view while Kluxen in his conducting of Sergei Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony unleashed a wildly exuberant one. Consequently, the audience at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall reacted warmly and politely to Kahane’s pieces but enthusiastically jumped to their collective feet at the end of the Prokofiev. Perhaps a slight change in programming might have evened things out a bit, however, that’s how the evening went down.
Kahane scored a big hit when he collaborated with the orchestra to perform his emergency shelter intake form in May of 2018. It resulted in a recording of that piece with the orchestra, which will be released next year, and in his being appointed to the orchestra’s first Creative Chair. According to the Symphony’s president and CEO, Scott Showalter, Kahane has wasted no time embracing the Creative Chair position by visiting various organizations as an ambassador for the orchestra.
Kahane also brought an orchestrated score for a cycle of songs from his Book of Travelers, which he originally wrote for piano and voice after the 2016 election, crisscrossing the United States on Amtrak. So, the Oregon Symphony, with Kahane at the piano and Kluxen on the podium, played the world premiere of Pattern of the Rail: Six Orchestral Songs from Book of Travelers.
After a brief orchestra introduction that hinted at a train-like rhythm, Kahane, singing into a microphone that was perched on the piano, launched into his first tune, “Baedeker,” giving us a slice of the famous guidebook yet etching it with apprehension and a feeling of being lost. The following sequence of songs: “Model Trains,” “Baltimore,” “Friends of Friends of Bill,” and “What If I Told You” gave a poetic synopsis of conversations that Kahane had with strangers on the train. Loss, despair, and fear were their main themes, and they were tied together with the final number, “Oct 1, 1939/Port of Hamburg,” which drew on Kahane’s Jewish grandmother who fled Nazi Germany.
As Kahane delivered an amazing amount of text from memory, his light-tenor voice darted all over the map with amazing agility. His style was that of a modern troubadour, who sang words of caution about our culture. The text was printed in the program, but they were difficult to read in the dim light of the hall. The orchestra added texture with word-painting sounds: siren-like violins, marching brass, and breezy woodwinds.
Picking up an electric guitar, Kahane and the orchestra performed his Empire Liquor Mart, which poetically related the tragedy of Latasha Harlins, who died while trying to purchase a bottle of orange juice about two weeks after the Rodney King beating. Harlins was 15 years old. It was moving, but perhaps Kahane could have done an upbeat piece instead. In any case, he followed it by returning to the piano and singing a wistful and poignant encore “Little Love,” which is also from his Book of Travelers.
Kluxen and the orchestra gave a thoroughly electrifying performance of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. Bright trumpets, a striking line for the clarinets (including the bass clarinet), the threatening sound from the bass drum and timpani, and a roaring, big finish to the first movement took the audience’s breath away. The second had a wonderful nervous energy accented with crisp attacks by the strings and a thrilling cascade of sound near the end. The lower brass section established an ominous and forlorn feeling with the tuba (JáTtik Clark) reaching into the depths. A serene melody from the strings led to dramatic statements that faded away. The fourth movement featured a wonderful gnawing sound from the violas, a spirited clarinet solo (James Shields), and a gripping, propulsive, stemwinder of a finale that brought everyone out of their seats. It was a magical moment for the orchestra which (by not standing) allowed the thunderous acclamation to shower the conductor.
It should be noted that Kluxen and the orchestra opened the concert with an incisive performance of Beethoven’s Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus. The punchy beginning, the fleet phrasing of the strings, and the vigorous ending flew by quickly, making an excellent impression as well.
Since this is Kalmar’s last year as music director, the orchestra has brought in a number of very talented young conductors. Kluxen, who in his witty opening remarks said “I am from Denmark, the southern most region of Greenland,” made his U.S. debut with this concert. He is the music director of the Victoria Symphony (Canada) and the chief conductor of the Arctic Philharmonic (Norway). He has a terrific way of letting the orchestra breathe and express the music. Hopefully he will be back again!