Los Angeles Music Review: JEFFREY KAHANE: GOLDBERG VARIATIONS (Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s “Baroque Conversations” at Zipper Hall)

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by Daniel S. G. Wood on May 4, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles


It is more than satisfying to see what has become a fetish of the solo piano community performed with historical acuity and depth by (lo!) a conductor. Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) music director Jeffrey Kahane played Bach’s Goldberg Variations at Colburn’s Zipper Hall in the final installment of LACO’s stellar series “Baroque Conversations.” The theme of this year’s series, transformation and variation, perfectly suits the Goldberg Variations, an aggregate of canons and variations based on a 32-bar baseline.

The brilliance of Kahane’s presentation is not in doubt, but in a conversation about Bach keyboard music there is always the question of whether it should be played on the piano, with such infamous and evolutionary interpretations by the likes of Glenn Gould paving the way for naysayers. Often, what is most lacking in these conversations is context. For instance, Gould’s famous recording from the fifties was arguably downright avant-garde, but if you consider the record sales (high) versus Jeffrey Kahane - courtesy of CMA Artiststhe reputation of Bach (very low) during that era, suddenly Gould could be colored as the savior of Bach as opposed to the “young upstart.” In the empirical universe inhabited by only musicologists, Gould may have stepped on a few toes, but his importance to Bach’s twentieth century development supersedes the Bach-on-piano debate.

Similarly, the most arguable traits of Kahane’s performance were both the ornamentation and the occasional dalliance into what I call “Concert Pianist Syndrome,” which includes flighty tempo changes, needless and manipulative articulation, and over-interpreting—understandable traits, but I feel the context of him as conductor and harpsichordist tipped the scale somewhat because his ornaments were sometimes downright indulgent. It is obvious that Kahane has earned this very personal interpretation, despite these (depending on who you ask) disagreeable choices. Indeed, the clarity of his vision—attributable to a long career as harpsichordist and conductor in many a Bach Cantata—trumps any nitpicks.

To be clear, I only mention these things to prove a point about music appreciation. The concert was spectacular. Kahane has a deft touch that recalls a harpsichord but it is warm and full. He gets involved with music in a way that most pianists cannot simply by virtue of his post as conductor—his experience as an outside interpreter of music definitely shows here. LACO has a reputation for thoughtful and clear readings, an unsurprising status after hearing its leader deliver his own interpretations.

photo of Jeffrey Kahane courtesy of CMA Artists

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Baroque Conversations
Jeffrey Kahane, piano
Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Zipper Hall at the Colburn School, 200 S Grand Ave
played on Thursday May 1st, 2014
for future events, call 213.622.7001 x 1 or visit www.laco.org

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