Renowned as a pianist and conductor, Jeffrey Kahane is recognized by audiences around the world for his mastery of diverse repertoire from Bach to Gershwin. He has established a reputation as a truly versatile artist equally sought after as soloist, conductor, and chamber musician. This year, Kahane enters his eleventh season as Music Director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and continues his successful tenure as Music Director of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Under his leadership, both ensembles received 2007 ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming. He also continues as Artistic Director of the Green Music Festival in Sonoma County.
Maestro Kahane was gracious enough to sit down with "Classics Alive" for this interview.
Have you conducted both youth orchestras as well as professional orchestras? How are they different and what challenges do you find with each?
Yes, I’ve conducted both youth and professional orchestras: my very first real conducting gig was as music director of the Gardner Chamber Orchestra in Boston, which consisted entirely of students and graduates of conservatories and colleges in the Boston area. Not exactly a youth orchestra, but not a professional orchestra either: it was wonderful to be able to work with a group of musicians who were simply eager to play and enjoy themselves and for whom it was not a “regular job.”
I’ve also worked on occasion with orchestra of younger players, say, of grade school or junior high/high school age, and this is also a wonderful experience, since most of the young people are encountering a work with completely fresh eyes, without pre-conceptions. This is, paradoxically, both a great gift and a great challenge, since I often find I have to start from scratch in those situations trying to get young players to get the sense of the correct sound and style, the right kinds of articulation, texture, dynamics, and so on.
The great challenge with a professional orchestra, especially when one is dealing with a very familiar work, is to help recreate a sense of genuine freshness and spontaneity, a sense of aliveness in the playing, so that it doesn’t sound routine.
The role of music director has many different facets. First and foremost, I’m responsible for the artistic vision of the orchestra – which includes not only choosing individual programs (in Colorado I work with an artistic committee of musicians from the orchestra and members of the staff, but I have a leadership role in this) but also shaping a season so that the programs are balanced and make sense in relationship to one another, and perhaps even have a kind of “story line.” This takes an enormous investment of time, thought and energy.The process of shaping a really good symphony season for a year-round orchestra usually takes most of a year.
I also am involved in auditions (usually only in the final round), monitoring the performance of musicians, and so on. Although I’m not technically reponsible for budgeting or selling tickets, a good music director is always attentive to budgetary matters and keeps track of how the orchestra’s finances are doing. And, sometimes, we have to make decisions based on those kinds of budgetary considerations.
When you come back to a piece that you have conducted after several years, do you find that your interpretation has changed?
After conducting the same piece many times, how do you keep it fresh? (from Tiffany, age 17)
I relate the piece to other works of art – perhaps other pieces of music that I know influenced it, or works or literature or painting that might shed light possible ways of understanding of the piece. The truth is that a genuinely great piece, by definition, keeps itself fresh if you keep yourself fresh.
What is the job outlook for graduating students who want to play in a professional orchestra? (from Theresa, age 18)
What is the most important skill for a musician to have who is just starting to play in an orchestra? (from James, age 14)
The other critical, and I mean absolutely essential, skill that every orchestra player has to be able to listen to others while your playing, and to know the score as well as you are capable of doing. There is NOTHING worse than an orchestra player who thinks only about the part and is not interested in what every single other instrument is doing, and how all of those parts combine to make a meaningful and beatiful whole.
What advice do you have for young musicians who are interested in pursuing a career in music? (from a parent)
Does your orchestra sponsor programs for young people? What types of events or activities do they have for kids?
How do you see the future of classical music?
What specifically do you think about right before a performance? (from Elliot, age 9)
How do you hear so many instruments all at the same time? Can you hear individual mistakes as you are conducting? (from Lisa, age 16)
Which do you enjoy more - conducting or performing on the piano? (from Lisa, age 16)
Is it hard being a conductor? Do you need to be able to play all the instruments to be a conductor? (from Alexia, age 11)
You don’t need to play all the instruments, but you certainly need to understand as much as possible about the limitations and capabilities of each instrument. It is also extremely difficult to learn how to speak to an orchestra in a way that is both respectful and courteous, but also shows leadership and control.
Do you need to practice conducting? What does your practicing involve? How long do you practice conducting per day? (from Alexia, age 11)
What instrument did you start with? Was there a particular person or event that inspired you to start conducting? (from Ashley, age 12)
What career do you think you would have pursued if you hadn’t studied music? (from Joshua, age 15)
I would have been a historian, an archaeologist, or a linguist. My favorite thing besides making music is studying foreign languages.
Has anything major ever gone wrong during one of your performances? (from Charlie, age 7)
Thank you, Maestro Kahane for spending time with us.
Do you have a burning question you would like to ask the maestro?