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The Air Of The Dog

New York
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Centre
04/26/2009 -  
Felix Mendelssohn: Three Songs without Words (Opus 38, No. 6, Opus 67, Nos. 2 & 4)
Franz Schubert: Sonata in A Major, D. 959
Kenneth Frazelle: Selections from Wildflowers and from Sonata-Fantasy (New York premiere)
Nico Muhly: Short Stuff (World Premiere)
Gabriel Kahane: Django: Tiny Variations on a Big Dog (a. Dog Run; b. Night Watch; c. The Water Bowl is Empty; d. Mechanized Django; e. SPCA Blues) (New York premiere)
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Preludes and Etudes-Tableaux (Opus 23, No 7, Opus 32, Nos. 10 & 12, Opus 39, No 9)

Jeffrey Kahane (Piano)

Jeffrey Kahane (© Annie Appel)

I don’t care if he has paws or hands, any pianist who plays a piece dedicated to and about his dog is sterling in this writer’s book. Dog works are rare indeed on the concert circuit, and off hand I can recall only three. Elgar’s “G.R.S.” from the Enigma Variations, Satie’s Three Flabby Preludes for a Dog, and of course Arnold Schoenberg’s Songs For A Snarling Dog (the famed Grrrrrr-Lieder). But Jeffrey Kahane, his composer son Gabriel Kahane and his rescue dog Django were participants in a delightful piece called Django: Tiny Variations on a Big Dog. And I imagine my own dog, Coco, would easily identify the very doggish titles of the variations, listed above.

Mr. Kahane (the 29-year-old son of the composer) took a simple Ives-type melody, creating easily Kibbled (er….digestible) variations of some technically facile little sections, all of it ending with what must be Django’s own growl on the lower end of the piano.

According to the program notes, Django is a lover of Ligeti (unlike my Schnittke-singing spaniel), but not a note of the late Hungarian was to be heard. What we had was good enough, and Gabriel (alas, not Django) was there to enjoy the show.

Having a father like Jeffrey Kahane would inspire any son to write music, for Mr. Kahane is not only one of the most innovative conductors on the West Coast, but a pianist of the finest sensibility, technique and artistic sensibility. Wisely, the three “classic” works he played came from composers as well known for the pianism as their composition, so it all seemed to fit easily under his fingers.

Certainly the Mendelssohn Songs Without Words opened up the program with wonderfully rhythmic fluidity, ending with the elfin Spinnerlied played with dazzling power.

The most substantial work was the Schubert A major (D. 959). The opening was imposing, the finale, with its hearkening to the beginning, exhausted the emotions. But what would Mr. Kahane do with that enigmatic Andantino?

The opening was serene enough, but in the middle, Schubert—like Django—probably wants to tell us something, though we don’t know what it is. Most pianists play this like a bel canto recitative, and that can work. With Mr. Kahane, I was reminded of Janácek reciting some archaic language. That section was played so earnestly that it seemed to inevitably segue into the main theme. Quite a trick for any pianist.

The third “piano” works were by Rachmaninoff, and again Mr. Kahane showed that exceptional fluidity—as well as great passion in the B Minor Prelude.

Besides Gabriel Kahane’s variations, two other contemporary composers were present for their New York premieres. Nico Muhly is best known as an associate of Philip Glass, but his genius came out recently in the film, The Reader, where the music was as touching as the story. Here, though, Short Stuff was kind of joke. The four-minute piece is a brilliant toccata—with a twist. That twist comes with sudden stops in the middle of the phrase or lines. Not so much Musical Chairs as speed=bumps for the Indianapolis 500. As a native Los Angelino, Mr. Kahane had no problem in managing both the velocity and the stops.

Another surprise came with North Carolinian Kenneth Frazelle’s selections from Wildflowers, inspired by plants of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The names were new to me, but now I know that the Viper’s Bugloss is a very wild flower, ending with a snatch of Chopin. That the Slender Ladies’ Tresses is of gossamer lightness, and the Dentford Pink is a short wistful plant.

Obviously Mr. Kahane has excellent taste in modern music, since the overflow audience, sacrificing a balmy New York Sunday afternoon and challenging the threat of Swine Flu vociferously applauded a singularly delicious recital.

Harry Rolnick



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