Lack of focus in Gabriel Kahane’s muddled ‘48 States’ undermines fine performances

Ken Nahoum - Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

Gabriel Kahane showed Washington one of his faces at the Library of Congress earlier this month, with an engaging playlist-style performance that presented Schumann lieder and his own pop songs at different points on the same vernacular vocal spectrum.

On Saturday night, he returned to the area — the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland — with another arrow from his quiver. This time, it was “Gabriel’s Guide to the 48 States,” a 40-odd minute work for vocal/electric guitar/banjo soloist and chamber orchestra, which he described to the audience as “part song cycle, part oratorio, part seventh-grade social-studies lecture.”

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The problem with the piece is that his description was entirely accurate. And a seventh-grade social studies lecture is not, perhaps, the best model for a work of performance.

Not that “Gabriel’s Guide” — which had its world premiere at Dartmouth the night before — doesn’t have its moments. Kahane is a likable figure who writes music that hides its sophistication beneath a veneer of likability. And this collagelike piece was studded with moments of fine orchestral writing — here a gentle murmur of marimba over strings, there a flashy rock-style passage yielding seamlessly to a delicate flute solo — and the thoughtfully realized text-settings that are Kahane’s trademark. (The piece was commissioned and played by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the conductorless ensemble, now in its 40th year. The group is in residence at the University of Maryland, and Kahane has served for the past two years as its composer-in-residence.)

The problem was mainly one of presentation. The piece’s texts are drawn from guidebooks produced under the aegis of the Federal Writers’ Program of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, creating a collage-travelogue of the Depression-era United States, filtered through Kahane’s own 21st-century perspective. The 1930s, as presented here, appear in quotation marks, with various snippets of period music, from cowboy-style singing with banjo accompaniment to a repeated orchestral section that evokes the ruddy melodic health of “Appalachian Spring.”

Although the piece was clearly created with visual effects in mind — the score even includes some modest stage directions, and some performances on its current tour will indeed include projections — what Saturday’s audience got was one big, continuous chunk of music. Kahane’s diction is praiseworthy, and he was as clear as he could be about the styles he was offering — now acting as a folk singer, now taking on the character of a transient street philosopher button-holing the listener in a contemporary patter song. He gave a virtuoso performance, but it was hard to apprehend in the absence of signposts along the way. This is one case in which more visual information would have helped.

Orpheus certainly makes a case for the democratic model. The playing was involved and together, with Kahane at times acting as a kind of bandleader, giving rock-style cues of the arm. At one point, the entire ensemble stood up, put instruments aside and joined in the Sacred Harp hymn, a vocal tradition of Alabama. And the playing was equally committed in the first half of the program, which presented an intriguing pendant from another corner of the musical spectrum, Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night.”

Missing from the evening as a whole was a strong point of view — someone, at the very least, to help Kahane shape the mass of fine music and text that he has put together.

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