Present Music, Kahane and Adams
The prodigiously talented Gabriel Kahane, who helped Present Music open its season Saturday night at Turner Hall, appears destined for stardom. But stardom of what kind I cannot say. He’s something new.
Kahane, 27, plays in bands and is a singer-songwriter of the sort heard on public radio’s World Cafe. Saturday, he sang five little songs from the piano. Both his singing voice and the winsome sentiments made me think of Paul Simon. That’s a compliment, but I still think the songs didn’t quite work in the setting. Kahane was far upstage, and the mix was such that only some words came through, not enough to tell whether they were treacly or telling. A fairer hearing would be in an intimate piano bar — Kahane did some time in such bars, in New York — where the singer’s presence comes into play and every word counts.
Kahane is also an accomplished classical pianist and a sophisticated composer, he can sing in a more rarified, art-song style, and he can get around on the banjo. Every element in his unlikely skillset figured in “For the Union Dead,” a substantial cycle of nine songs on Robert Lowell poems.
Kahane sang all of them, sometimes in his refined voice and sometimes in vernacular style. He played piano on four of them and banjo on five. He also conducted an ensemble comprising flute, trumpet, bass clarinet and violin, viola and cello. This remarkable young musician pulled off his many tasks with great aplomb and taut focus, and Present Music’s ensemble responded eagerly and accurately.
In his melodies, harmonies, vocal styles and shadings, and instrumental colors, Kahane showed great sensitivity to the poetry. He heightened and underscored Lowell’s moods and sometimes embodied his meaning with the utmost subtlety. In a striking passage near the end, when Lowell draws on the image of fish in an aquarium, string and woodwind trills among pizzicato bubbles in the strings exactly illustrate the swirling tails and watery breathing of fish.
The songs do not accumulate force and meaning as a cycle. The wide-ranging subject matter, from a contemplation on civil rights to the depravity of a late-stage alcoholic, work against accumulation of meaning. So do the assorted vocal styles and the delays of switching between piano and banjo. But each of these songs is a gem.
Each of John Adams’ four “Alleged Dances,” for string quartet and pre-recorded electronic percussion, is also a gem — of a joke. Violinists Eric Segnitz and Shu Zhan, violist Brek Renzelman and cellist Karl Lavine got the essence of each dance: jazz hoedown; slow and weighty drag rag; surreal Habanera; and juggernaut jitterbug. All are wackily off-meter in the way of an out-of-balance wheel.
Artistic director Kevin Stalheim, clarinetist Bill Helmers and the 13-piece Present Music Orchestra revived Adams’ “Gnarly Buttons,” a mini-concerto for clarinet the group co-commissioned in 1996.
This music is fabulous and cheerful in mood, frighteningly virtuosic, and artfully constructed to engage the mind of the listener throughout. It opens with a low solo murmur, as if the clarinetist were in private rumination. The beast awakens fully and calls out to the orchestra. That opening murmur takes on profile, which the orchestra matches in unison in fragments. The idea splinters and everyone has a take on it in rapid exchange. In that first movement and in different ways in the other two, a single idea grows and changes in miraculous ways, but stays true to itself. Hearing this music is like watching happy children grow to happy adulthood before your eyes, in very compressed time.
We could have heard none of this without brilliant performances from the ensemble and from Helmers. He made all those gnarly rhythms and spectacular runs and leaps sound like child’s play. “Gnarly Buttons” can’t live without the sense of joy in the doing that Helmers brought to it Saturday.