Renowned as a pianist and conductor, Jeffrey Kahane is recognized by audiences around the world for his mastery of diverse repertoire from Bach to Gershwin. He has established a reputation as a truly versatile artist equally sought after as soloist, conductor, and chamber musician. This year, Kahane enters his eleventh season as Music Director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and continues his successful tenure as Music Director of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Under his leadership, both ensembles received 2007 ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming. He also continues as Artistic Director of the Green Music Festival in Sonoma County.
Have you conducted both youth orchestras as well as professional orchestras? How are they different and what challenges do you find with each?
Yes, I’ve conducted both youth and professional orchestras: my very first real conducting gig was as music director of the Gardner Chamber Orchestra in Boston, which consisted entirely of students and graduates of conservatories and colleges in the Boston area. Not exactly a youth orchestra, but not a professional orchestra either: it was wonderful to be able to work with a group of musicians who were simply eager to play and enjoy themselves and for whom it was not a “regular job.”
I’ve also worked on occasion with orchestra of younger players, say, of grade school or junior high/high school age, and this is also a wonderful experience, since most of the young people are encountering a work with completely fresh eyes, without pre-conceptions. This is, paradoxically, both a great gift and a great challenge, since I often find I have to start from scratch in those situations trying to get young players to get the sense of the correct sound and style, the right kinds of articulation, texture, dynamics, and so on.
The great challenge with a professional orchestra, especially when one is dealing with a very familiar work, is to help recreate a sense of genuine freshness and spontaneity, a sense of aliveness in the playing, so that it doesn’t sound routine.
What is your role as artistic director? Do you make programming decisions, do you choose the musicians who play in the orchestra, do you keep track of the budget, do you sell the tickets?
The role of music director has many different facets. First and foremost, I’m responsible for the artistic vision of the orchestra – which includes not only choosing individual programs (in Colorado I work with an artistic committee of musicians from the orchestra and members of the staff, but I have a leadership role in this) but also shaping a season so that the programs are balanced and make sense in relationship to one another, and perhaps even have a kind of “story line.” This takes an enormous investment of time, thought and energy.The process of shaping a really good symphony season for a year-round orchestra usually takes most of a year.
I also am involved in auditions (usually only in the final round), monitoring the performance of musicians, and so on. Although I’m not technically reponsible for budgeting or selling tickets, a good music director is always attentive to budgetary matters and keeps track of how the orchestra’s finances are doing. And, sometimes, we have to make decisions based on those kinds of budgetary considerations.
When you come back to a piece that you have conducted after several years, do you find that your interpretation has changed?
My interpretation of a piece changes from day to day, not just from year to year or after many years.. We’re different people every day, and we’re certainly different when we’re fifty from when we’re twenty – so we bring a whole new set of life experiences to a piece of music each time we come back to it. We hear things in it we didn’t before, we have realizations about what it means, or what it means to us, anyway, and as we mature (I hope!) we bring a deeper and richer emotional palette to each piece we interpret.
After conducting the same piece many times, how do you keep it fresh? (from Tiffany, age 17)
I keep music fresh by always looking at pieces in a new light. I experiment with different tempi, articulation, dynamics; I read about the piece, perhaps try to learn more and more about the composer’s inner and outer life, try to feel more deeply into the historical context in which the piece was created and imagine what it would be like to live in that kind of world.
I relate the piece to other works of art – perhaps other pieces of music that I know influenced it, or works or literature or painting that might shed light possible ways of understanding of the piece. The truth is that a genuinely great piece, by definition, keeps itself fresh if you keep yourself fresh.
What is the job outlook for graduating students who want to play in a professional orchestra? (from Theresa, age 18)
It’s tough: there’s no denying that it’s highly competitive. It’s not enough just to be really good: you have to be imaginative, willing to take risks, and have a little bit of luck, of course. But orchestra jobs CAN be a wonderful way to make a living if you approach them in the right way, and if you get into an orchestra that has a flexible and creative approach to the art of orchestral playing.
What is the most important skill for a musician to have who is just starting to play in an orchestra? (from James, age 14)
Intense focus combined with tremendous flexibility and willingness to absorb new influences and ideas. If you come into the orchestra with a set idea of how you should play a piece, you’re either going to have to be open to new approaches or you’re going to end up being very frustrated.
The other critical, and I mean absolutely essential, skill that every orchestra player has to be able to listen to others while your playing, and to know the score as well as you are capable of doing. There is NOTHING worse than an orchestra player who thinks only about the part and is not interested in what every single other instrument is doing, and how all of those parts combine to make a meaningful and beatiful whole.
What advice do you have for young musicians who are interested in pursuing a career in music? (from a parent)
Work hard, and remember that the single most important thing about making music is that it is an act of service. If it’s about you, or about “making it”, you should find another job. The world of music needs people who are there to serve music and to serve others, not to achieve personal glory. It’s about giving, not getting.
Does your orchestra sponsor programs for young people? What types of events or activities do they have for kids?
Yes, both my orchestras have very active and very successful programs for young people. We both have extensive series of concerts both for families on weekends, and also do programs where kids have an opportunity to come to our halls and hear programs especially designed from an education point of view, where they learn about different kinds of music, about instruments, about the life of a musician, and have an opportunity to interact with and ask questions of the musicians on stage.
How do you see the future of classical music?
I think the future of classical music remains bright. The number of younger people interested in careers in classical music is growing exponentially, especially in Asia, and as long as young music students fall in love with music and learn the right kind of musical values, there will always be a bright future for the art form.
What specifically do you think about right before a performance? (from Elliot, age 9)
The music, the music, the music! I think about what is really important, which is sharing my joy in music-making with the audience, and about what I want them to get out of whatever piece I’m conducting or playing.
How do you hear so many instruments all at the same time? Can you hear individual mistakes as you are conducting? (from Lisa, age 16)
That is a skill that you develop with very hard work over many years. Yes, I can hear individual mistakes, depending on how well I know the piece and how complex the textures are, that is to say, how large the orchestra is and how many people are playing different things at one time. It’s very easy to hear individual mistakes in a Mozart or a Beethoven Symphony – much harder in a huge complex piece by Berg, for example.
Which do you enjoy more - conducting or performing on the piano? (from Lisa, age 16)
I love both very much, but the piano is where I started out, and if I had to make a choice (which fortunately I don’t!) I would choose to play the piano.
Is it hard being a conductor? Do you need to be able to play all the instruments to be a conductor? (from Alexia, age 11)
Being a conductor is incredibly difficult. The actual physical part, using the baton, is the least difficult part, although, even that requires discipline and thought if it’s going to be maxmimally effective. The hardest thing is mastering an enormously complex score, and being able to rehearse the orchestra in a way that is efficient as well as inspiring to the musicians.
You don’t need to play all the instruments, but you certainly need to understand as much as possible about the limitations and capabilities of each instrument. It is also extremely difficult to learn how to speak to an orchestra in a way that is both respectful and courteous, but also shows leadership and control.
Do you need to practice conducting? What does your practicing involve? How long do you practice conducting per day? (from Alexia, age 11)
You don’t practice conducting in the same way you practice an instrument: practicing conducting is almost all done inside your mind. It involves many, many hours of intense study of the score, and trying to develop an idea inside your head of how you want the music to sound and what you are going to ask the orchestra to do to achieve your musical vision. Sometimes you will practice the physical motions of conducting a particularly difficult part of a piece, but mostly it’s mental activitiy rather than physical, until you actually get up in front of the orchestra.
What instrument did you start with? Was there a particular person or event that inspired you to start conducting? (from Ashley, age 12)
I started on piano when I was 5 years old. I also loved the orchestra, and eventually just began finding opportunities to do it.
What career do you think you would have pursued if you hadn’t studied music? (from Joshua, age 15)
I would have been a historian, an archaeologist, or a linguist. My favorite thing besides making music is studying foreign languages.
Has anything major ever gone wrong during one of your performances? (from Charlie, age 7)
Yes: I’ve had keys and strings break on a piano in the middle of a concert and had to stop. Once I had a bad cough, and was coughing so hard I had to stop playing and leave the stage until the coughing stopped. The worst was when I was conducting a big piece for chorus and orchestra and there were a bunch of kids singing in the choir, and one of them fainted on stage. We are all terribly worried but she was fine.
Thank you, Maestro Kahane for spending time with us.
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