Few singer-songwriters alive today combine compositional expertise, vocal abilities, and instrumental chops as does Gabriel Kahane. Despite his self-described ‘comfort in the concert hall,’ I wouldn’t have believed how well his music fits alongside Schubert’s. For this collaboration with A Far Cry, Jordan Hall warmed to Kahane’s mature voice as a songwriter, composer, and singer. This evening rang with an authentic ethic of collaboration, within A Far Cry and between the ensemble and Kahane. However, it is difficult to say what made for a better pairing: the unpretentious yet sophisticated stylings of Far Cry and Kahane, or the precocious and spiritual storytelling of Kahane and Schubert.
The first half of “Old Friend,” a newfangled Schubertiade, sandwiched pairs of Kahane’s songs between orchestrated arrangements of Schubert lieder. More spice came from instrumental works by each composer, including a premier by Kahane. An enlargement of Schubert’s String Quartet in G Major, D. 887 somewhat heavily occupied the entire second half.
Scampering onto the stage with a faux-disheveled hairdo and beard, Kahane seems to compensate for his poetic and vulnerable side with his outré attire and witty (and genuinely funny) remarks between songs. Reminiscing on his two-year stint as an undergrad at NEC, he noted he was less likely to be at parties and more prone to “waking up in the morning next to an empty pizza box and a copy of Mahler 5.” In playing the flippant semi-outsider, he couldn’t help mentioning that “[he] promised Far Cry to not bring up Syphilis during the program”. Though he clearly curated his banter, he charmed the audience with his carefree, boyish yet-vaguely-mad-genius demeanor.
While I learned about his songwriting from a composition mentor who met Kahane at the MacDowell Colony, his earlier complexity has given way to spiritual simplicity. Rather than flaunting chaotic metric shifts, polyrhythms, and twelve-tone bass lines, he has subordinated his wild and adventurous compositional chops to his quieter storytelling through a remarkable baritone. His most recent album, “The Ambassador,” was released on Sony. Telling the story of L.A. through 10 different tunes each based on a street addresses, it’s more marketable and listenable than his earlier releases, that mix virtuosic 20th-century chamber music, musical theater, and folk.
Opening with Schubert’s “Nacht und Traume” (Night and Dreams), Kahane’s poise and tone, quite frankly, surprised me. He sings well on his albums, but this outing was special: gentle and sensitive, not overly affected; strong diction and direction without being overly dramatic. His elegant voice as amplified for this event compares well to the style of his newest batch of songs: never showy, intricate though not necessarily virtuosic. He succeeds in live performance from a deep, genuine presence which is never dramatic, gaudy, or excessively exhibitionistic.
Kahane’s first original song, “Veda,” flowed from the Schubert without interruption, and it felt right. The two composers have a kindred sense of story: patience in the way their musical ideas unfold relative to the text. The addition of his clean electric guitar, which can feel a little naked in his solo performances, added a complementary timbre to Far Cry’s warm and smooth sounds. The shift in his vocal placement was obvious but not distracting, fitting the gentle, lullaby-like song.
All musical decisions by the conductorless group felt considered and intentioned. They seamlessly brought shine, vitality and unified energy to re-orchestrated versions of Kahane’s songs.
This energy carried through a compelling premier of Kahane’s Freight & Salvage, which explored bringing instrumental and song writing into dialogue. The string accompaniments continued the style and emotion of “The Ambassador.” Though its moments of stark textural and metric shifts came off as cinematic, the work isn’t too dramatic; it maintains rather, lightness, youthfulness, and adventure. While he borrowed the ABCDCBA ‘mirror form’ from Bartok, Kahane’s own style is unmistakable.
Without Kahane’s voice, electric guitar and Wurlitzer piano, the momentum from the first half dissipated. The singer/composer’s fans seemed to get restless during the second and third movements of the Schubert; coughs, ruffling programs, and eyes examining the architecture made it challenging to attend to the now voiceless narratives. However, the last movement reigned everyone back in, as the ensemble authoritatively delivered powerful musical drama. The few virtuosic passages that slipped slightly out of tune could be counted as tiny blips on an otherwise flawless performance.