Gabriel Kahane’s syntheses makes classical music jaunty, and no one seems to mind


Composer, songwriter and performer Gabriel Kahane with his cat Roscoe at his home in Brooklyn, N.Y. on March 25. (Melanie Burford/Prime/For The Washington Post)

When singer-songwriter/composer Gabriel Kahane began to sing Britten into a mike Friday night at the Library of Congress, I assumed that some audience members would be horrified. For one thing, we classical-music aficionados, especially the voice-lovers, often wring our hands about the use of amplification. For another, Kahane sang in the slightly grainy, dusky tones of a singer-songwriter rather than the rounded, flowing ones of a lied singer. “I’m proposing that in concert music there’s another way of singing,” he had said to me in a recent interview, and another way of singing was what he offered: a direct, text-driven means of communication in a voice that was pleasantly expressive but disregarded the classical conventions of legato and vibrato and breath support.

I needn’t have worried. At the end of the night, the crowd jumped to its feet and gave Kahane and Timothy Andres, the pianist and composer with whom he performed, a standing ovation.

Classical audiences, in short, may be more ready for new approaches than you might think. Or maybe listeners just instinctively understood that what the two musicians were doing — direct, musical, natural — was a lot closer to the original spirit of a lot of this music than many more formal, conventional presentations.

It was certainly an eminently likable concert. Andres and Kahane, 28 and 31, respectively, projected an English-schoolboy air of precocious seriousness in their suits: Andres clean-cut and bespectacled, Kahane slightly shaggy and eager. They opened and closed the concert with Kurtag’s arrangements of Bach for piano duo, setting the tone for a concert that showcased composers putting their own (respectful, gentle) stamp on music that they loved — like the Britten arrangements of English folk songs that followed. (There was another level of allusion here: Britten is a character in Kahane’s recent musical, “February House.”)

The body of the concert, though, was a live playlist of short pieces ranging from a Schubert impromptu to Kahane’s own pop songs. In the classical music world, this is a refreshing alternative to the conventional set-by-set approach to recital programming; to the rest of the world, it’s just the way people like to listen to music. Kahane and Andres certainly make a great argument for it, offering a more complete and personal musical portrait of themselves through the music they chose to present in alternation. We got a piano solo from Andres, like his “At the River,” which offered musical patterns that gradually parted to reveal fragments of the familiar spiritual (a tip of the hat to Charles Ives, who also deconstructed the same song). We got “Neurotic and Lonely” from Kahane’s “Craigslistlieder,” a cycle of settings from the classifieds Web site in which the piano, in the best lied tradition, illuminates and sets off the words, and in which Kahane, in the best singer-songwriter tradition, accompanied himself.

The repertoire certainly set up intersecting ripple patterns of reference and allusion. Andres’s “It takes a long time to become a good composer,” two excerpts of which he played Friday, is a nod to Schumann’s “Kreisleriana,” like it written in individual sections that add up to a conglomerate whole, and like it precisely detailed and largely expressive at the same time. Andres’s whole performance style showed a detailed clarity; it helped illuminate “Three Mazurkas” by Thomas Ades, especially the nervous silvery shattering of the “Prestissimo molto espressivo”), as well as a coolly lovely account of Schubert’s Impromptu in G-flat Major.

And Kahane’s “Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome,” from Schumann’s “Dichterliebe,” was offered in exactly the same vein as “Merritt Pkwy” and the eponymous track from his pop album “Where Are the Arms.” This is not to say that he offered a crossover take on Schumann so much as that his own songs are — deliberately — in the vein of a long-standing songwriting tradition. I’ve often said that to understand Schubert, you should think of a teenage boy locked in his room with his electric guitar writing songs; Kahane is that teenage boy, grown up. The ultimate validation of his deliberately vernacular style was his and Andres’s powerful account of three Ives songs, culminating with a thunderously wrenching reading of “The Housatonic at Stockbridge.”

It’s not surprising that the gray-haired classical audience should embrace this kind of thing. Kahane’s frame of reference is actually similar their own: Bach, Schubert, classic ’60s and ’70s pop music. In finding a way to synthesize these influences, Kahane is committing not an act of rebellion, but of appropriation. And the audience was applauding not a young upstart, but one of its own.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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