During the early years of his career, Jeffrey Kahane was known primarily known as a top-rank pianist whose reputation was launched with a first prize at the prestigious Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in 1983 and his debut the same year at Carnegie Hall. Five years later, however, he made his first podium appearance, and conducting has taken on a larger role ever since.
But with Kahane, 59, it’s rarely a question of doing one or the other. Indeed, more than 80 percent of his international engagements with orchestras now involve him serving as conductor and piano soloist, where he leads from the keyboard. It’s in this double role that he will appear Aug. 3 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia.
Longtime Chicago audiences are accustomed to this tradition because Daniel Barenboim, the CSO’s music director from 1991 to 2006, was a renowned pianist as well as a conductor, and he frequently combined the two roles. Other famed maestros who have regularly conducted from the keyboard include Leonard Bernstein, Christoph Eschenbach and André Previn. “It’s not some bizarre phenomenon,” Kahane said.
He cited several other reasons behind the appeal of the pianist-conductor: “Orchestras enjoy it tremendously,” he said. “Especially when I do Mozart or Beethoven, it’s a whole different way of approaching that kind of repertoire.” By hiring one artist for two jobs, it is also economical, he pointed out with a chuckle. “That’s a very attractive thing for orchestras,” he said. “Since it’s something I’ve been doing for 25 years or more, I’ve gotten very comfortable with that and I enjoy it, too.”
Kahane has been a frequent Ravinia visitor since 1987, when he joined the CSO and guest conductor David Zinman in Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto. In June 2004, during an ambitious set of back-to-back concerts, he served as guest soloist and conductor for all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos.
The centerpiece of this summer’s appearance will be George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which Kahane will, of course, lead from the keyboard. He has chosen the first version of the work that bandleader Paul Whiteman and the Palais Royal Orchestra premiered during a New York City concert in 1924. The orchestration by Ferde Grofé consists essentially of a big band plus a percussion section — drum set, timpani and glockenspiel — and banjo and violins. Kahane prefers the energy, spirit and rawness of the original over a later 1942 arrangement for full symphony orchestra. This subsequent version became the standard way that Rhapsody was heard until the late 1970s when some conductors like Michael Tilson Thomas began returning to Gershwin’s first take.
“The notes are virtually identical,” Kahane said, comparing the 1924 original to the better-known 1942 arrangement. “I don’t even know that there are any actual differences in the notes themselves. But the orchestration is so radically different that it both is and isn’t a completely different piece. It’s just a whole different aesthetic. It sounds much more like a real jazz work than a concert work.”
Also on the program will be another American masterwork, Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from the 1957 Broadway musical “West Side Story,” which Kahane is pairing with Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. Although Kahane admits the two works are “wildly different,” he notes that they were composed just 17 years apart and share an obvious connection. This concert will be the first time he has programmed them side by side, and he is excited to hear them together.
An unusual aspect of this concert is that alto saxophone is featured in all three works. “As you know, it’s kind of an interloper in the symphonic world, but one which when used well is always a wonderful color to add,” he said. “I think the alto sax solo in the first movement of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances is one of the great strokes of orchestrational genius and one of the most beautiful melodies in the whole literature. The alto saxophone also features prominently in the famous opening of ‘West Side Story.’”
“So it’s a dance program, I guess you could say,” Kahane said. “And it’s all music that is wonderfully suited to a summer evening.”
While the pianist-conductor maintains a busy international touring schedule, he also has had one longtime post: music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. After 20 years in this position, however, he is stepping down at the end of the 2016-17 season. “I never thought I would be the music director for 20 years,” he said. “That’s a long tenure in this day and age. I thought 15 years would probably be about the time I would say goodbye.”
But when his 15-year mark came up, the orchestra, like many arts organizations across the country, was facing financial challenges in the wake of the 2008 recession, and he thought it would be best to remain in his post a bit longer. “It happened that [my departure] worked out beautifully at 20 years,” he said. “It’s very bittersweet. My relationship with the orchestra has never been better. The morale is very high. Things are going incredibly well in general. We’ve raised significant sums of money in recent years. But I knew that there is a time when change has to happen, and I thought it would be healthy for the orchestra, and it would be good for me.”
In 2015, Kahane began teaching on a limited basis at the University of Southern California, which has a well-regarded music school. He will assume a full professorship there in 2017-18 (still leaving plenty of time for touring) and will move from his longtime home in Santa Rosa, Calif. (where he was music director of the local symphony for 10 seasons), back to his hometown of Los Angeles. “So it’s kind of coming full circle,” he said.
But Kahane is open to the idea of another similar role in the future. “I’m at a point in my life when I don’t need another music-director position,” he said. “So if I were to take one, and I certainly wouldn’t rule it out, it would need to be someplace where I really felt that I could put a lot of my energy into the creative side of things, rather worrying about keeping an orchestra [financially] afloat.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic at the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.