gabriel kahane

Punch Brothers and Gabriel Kahane review: Extending American traditions

Unexpectedly satisfying Oregon Bach Festival double bill features composer/musicians who add classical music dimension to bluegrass and singer-songwriter legacies


One of the joys of live music is finding great music in unexpected persons and unconventional places.

When I first saw the Punch Brothers in 2010 at Pickathon in Happy Valley, Oregon, they were a tight group of virtuosos playing dazzling but frigid bluegrass-inflected compositions built on classical forms and ambition. But at this summer’s Oregon Bach Festival performance at Eugene’s Hult Center, Punch Brothers were a mature, smoothly operating entertainment force-of-nature whose ambitions have been fulfilled.

Punch Brothers. Photo: Brian Stowell.

Punch Brothers. Photo: Brian Stowell.

I had no idea who their opening act, Gabriel Kahane, was, except that he is the son of pianist and Oregon Bach Festival regular, Jeffrey Kahane. In his opening set for the Punch Brothers, I discovered a gifted songwriter and performer who satisfied more than one of my aesthetic expectations of original American pop music: he sang with his own voice (not Colin Meloy’s, Ray Lamontagne’s, Tom Waits’, etc.), and he dealt with current and historic material in the language of his times. In an era of rampant artistic emulation, pseudo-folk theatricality, and thematic assimilation, Kahane transcends by delivering himself. Well, yes he does come off as Zach Galifianakis’s kid brother, but I don’t think he can help that.


ArtsWatch Weekly: Conduit’s last dance, Russian lost love, the color of race, chamber tales

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

For more than 20 years Conduit was a vital link – in many ways, the vital link – in Portland’s chain of contemporary dance organizations. A home base for some of the city’s most creative dancemakers, it was also the place that visiting choreographers and dancers made their temporary work home when they were in town. Major work and vital experiments were created here by a host of talented people. Mary Oslund, Tere Mathern, Linda K. Johnson, Gregg Bielemeier, V. Keith Goodman, Jim McGinn, Katherine Longstreth: the list goes on and on, creating a tapestry of the tale of a very large and significant chapter in the history of the city’s dance.

It’s all history now, or will be as of July 23, when Conduit hangs up its hat for good, at least in its current form. The party’s over – but not before an actual party, A Wake for Conduit, fills the Ford Building for a final celebration this Wednesday, July 13. Bring your stories, and put on your dancing shoes. Jamuna Chiarini has the story for ArtsWatch readers.

There Mathern's "Gather: a dance about convergence," performed in 2012 in Conduit's original home in the Pythian Building. Photo: Gordon Wilson

There Mathern’s “Gather: a dance about convergence,” performed in 2012 in Conduit’s original home in the Pythian Building. Photo: Gordon Wilson



A TALE OF RUSSIAN LOVE LOST. Bruce Browne reviews Portland Opera’s new production of Eugene Onegin, which continues in the relatively cozy Newmark Theatre through July 26. Tchaikovsky’s opera, based on Alexander Pushkin’s extraordinarily popular Russian verse novel, is re-set in this production to the late years of the Soviet Union and the early years of the post-Soviet era, a switch that works for Browne: “The reason this production works so well is that the actors/singers embraced the change.” He particularly praises Jennifer Forni as Tatiana, the country miss who’s spurned by the cold title character: “Forni’s voice has the power and brilliance of a roman candle, and yet is never pushed, always in control. She has the best messa di voce (getting softer and louder on one note) I’ve heard in a long time. And she convincingly brought to life the facets of her teenage angst, brought about attempting to deal with Onegin.”


Gabriel Kahane’s American Tour

Composer's Oregon Bach Festival composition is one of several inspired by places -- including Oregon

Composers draw inspiration from many places — a melodic phrase, chord progression, a poem, a memory, even mathematical processes.

Gabriel Kahane often finds musical ideas in actual places, the kind you can find on a map app. And why not? Writers and painters have long used urban or rural landscapes as subjects; many works by Oregon composers described in ArtsWatch over the past few years were inspired by the state’s natural beauty. Sufjan Stevens has devoted whole albums to songs somehow related to a single US state.

Songwriter and composer Kahane seems especially inspired by the relationship between people and historic places, as in his poignant albums about his Los Angeles birthplace, Where are the Arms and The Ambassador, and a musical set in a midcentury Bohemian artists’ rooming house in his current hometown of Brooklyn.

Gabriel Kahane. Photo: Josh Goleman.

Gabriel Kahane. Photo: Josh Goleman.

On July 8, Oregonians can hear Kahane’s latest place-related composition. The 35-year-old composer’s Oregon Bach Festival showcase, Gabriel’s Guide to the 48 States, sets surprisingly moving, Great Depression-era words mostly drawn from the Federal Writers Project’s famous travel/ culture/ history guides (some written by famous authors John Cheever, Zora Neale Hurston, Saul Bellow and others in part as a way of supporting unemployed artists), which “serve as a time capsule of a very different America than the one in which we now live,” Kahane’s notes explain. A couple of the sections come from the WPA Oregon guide.

“Its very meaningful to me to have the Oregon premiere,” Kahane adds. “Two of the most substantial, emotionally weighty parts of the piece have to do with Oregon.”


Chamber music crossovers: Anti-Genrefication activists

Ensembles win broader audiences by embracing wider range of music

“Crossover” is a dirty word in classical music. To some old-guardians, the c-word implies some kind of sell out or dilution of the purity of great music. Although many of us are still willing to pay a considerable sum to sit quietly and watch a few musicians play music from previous centuries (music now easily available at home with a click) on a stage for a couple hours, chamber music presenters and performers are increasingly enhancing/diluting (depending on your point of view) the “classic” chamber music experience with other kinds of music and even non musical elements — theater, visual art, video, and more.

Chamber Music Northwest and/or Portland5 (the city’s performing arts center) this year have brought Black Violin (classical meets hip hop), Frye Street Quartet (classical meets climate change), 2Cellos (classical meets hair gel), Igudesman & Joo (classical meets comedy) to town. Local musicians like Darrell Grant, Portland Cello Project and ARCO-PDX cross classical with jazz, pop, and rock-show presentation, respectively.

The Dali Quartet performed at The Old Church in Friends of Chamber Music's Not So Classic Series. Photo: John Green.

The Dali Quartet performed at The Old Church in Friends of Chamber Music’s Not So Classic Series. Photo: John Green.

Friends of Chamber Music started its Not So Classic series in the 1999-2000 season because “we felt there were no many chamber ensembles out there that didn’t fit into the traditional string quartet/piano trio programming on our Classic Series,” executive director Pat Zagelow told ArtsWatch via email. “And since our Classic Series has a strong subscriber base and people are quite happy with that programming as it is, rather than change that around or just add to it, we started a separate series that would allow us to offer some different instrumentation and/or different chamber music programming … [from] contemporary groups like eighth blackbird, Kronos Quartet and So Percussion to jazz-influenced groups like Turtle Island String Quartet to unusual quartets like the Rastrelli Cello Quartet and Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, eclectic instrumentation like Quartetto Gelato, and groups that take ‘traditional’ chamber music and shake it up, like Red Priest, or groups that focus on non-traditional repertoire, like the Dali Quartet and their Latin-American program.”

Though the series started at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, “we really think these concerts are better experienced in a more intimate setting, which is what has drawn us to [downtown Portland’s 300-seat] The Old Church recently,” Zagelow explains. “The recent renovation with wood flooring on the stage and better lighting and sound makes it an even better option.”

As hoped, “the audience for Not So Classic concerts is younger and more diverse than for our Classic Series,” Zagelow wrote. You can hear a recent crossover — between Chinese traditional and contemporary classical music — for the next couple weeks on Portland All Classical Radio’s Played in Oregon program, featuring the Shanghai Quartet and pipa virtuosa Wu Man playing music by Tan Dun and more.

Last month saw a flurry of crossover shows in Portland that mixed classical music — or at least “classical” instruments, and they leave me hopeful about the future of chamber music.


Gabriel Kahane

Gabriel Kahane: Is this the new face of classical music?


What’s the difference between a songwriter and a composer? It’s one of those perennial questions that mostly does a good job of running up bar tabs. But a few points are pretty safe to make – “songwriters” are supposed to be practical and unpretentious, while “composers” are supposed to be able to write for any occasion, particularly grand ones. Ever since Gershwin blasted through the traditional confines of the former to take his rightful place among the latter, the world of American music in particular has been peopled by esthetically cosmopolitan figures who wear the public face of the songwriter, but whose best work has the satisfying depth associated with the epithet “composer.”

At the same time, almost in a parallel universe, the dominant faction of those who wore that term unquestioned went off chasing the wild geese of novelty and theoretical perfection, leaving audiences in a dust of strange noises and set theory, much of which smelled suspiciously like goose poop. True, it was far from a fruitless chase. The dust is settling, and many intriguing beauties once thought unapproachable are emerging into view. And composers have mostly backed off, finding their way back to their audiences, sometimes with completely unexpected trophies in tow (e.g. minimalism). But not many have thought to look over into that other universe for inspiration.

There is a cadre of young composers today who are doing their utmost to change that. One of the most prominent is Gabriel Kahane, who made a big splash in 2007 with his breezy song cycle “Craigslistlieder,” humorously setting “lyrics” extracted from the venerable on-line bulletin board. On Wednesday night a goodly crowd settled into the Alberta Rose theater to hear him perform several of his more recent songs, aided by Chamber Music Northwest’s energetic protégé group, the Dover Quartet, which was formed by students at the Curtis Institute of Music a year after “Craigslistlieder” was released.

In the second half, they attempted to revive a nearly 200-year-old concert format, in which lighter works were heard between the movements of the major works of the evening. In this case, the major work was Beethoven’s middle Razumovsky quartet, op. 59 #2. I’m skeptical whether Beethoven would have approved of the practice for this particular piece, and as might be expected it didn’t always work, but the results were mostly highly enjoyable.


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