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"I've always been in love with the orchestra, fascinated with the unbelievable variety of things it can do, all the colors and textures," rhapsodizes the man who now guides the Santa Rosa Symphony. A late-blooming soloist who gave up pop music for a career as an international concert pianist and recording artist, Jeffrey Kahane is now making his mark as a man with a baton, in his debut season with the orchestra after having replaced longtime maestro Corrick Brown. He sees the local symphony as an instrument for renewing a public passion for orchestral music.

"The reason classical music in this country is in trouble is because most of the performances are not very good," Kahane says bluntly. Yet he also believes that "when people are exposed to something that is unbelievably vital and exhilarating, they will respond to it."

He's on a mission to do just that.

Personable and gracious, Kahane is short and compact, his open face framed with a slightly wild cascade of coppery curls. The score to a work on the next symphony program lies open on a coffee table as he settles in at the table in the breakfast nook of his comfortable country home west of Graton to discuss his life, his new job, and his views on making music.

Kahane's path to the podium was anything but direct. Although he began piano lessons at age 4, and was exposed to music of all varieties as a child growing up in the part of west Los Angeles he now jokingly calls "Beverly Flats," Kahane first got excited about music-making when rock and roll caught his ear as he turned 10. "I began to open up to a whole other world and taught myself how to play the guitar," he recalls. For the next five years, "I went through a whole series of bands, wrote songs, and played school dances and all that sort of thing. I expected to be a professional pop musician."

But he continued to study piano all along, and at 15 experienced "a re-awakening of my deep love of the classics" when his teacher introduced him to pianist Jakob Gimpel, a concert pianist, teacher, and "world-class musician" who had studied with the noted composer Alban Berg. "I was completely transformed by the contact with him," the former student relates. "There was something that I got from Brahms and Beethoven and Bach that I couldn't live without. And I wanted to make a contribution to keeping it vital and alive."

In 1981, at the age of 24, Kahane made it into the finals of the prestigious Van Cliburn competition, which in "an incredibly lucky break" happened to be televised on PBS that year. Performing a grueling series of 25 separate works in a few short days, he finished with the contest's fourth prize. To say he played well is an understatement. "I was amazed just to get in," he recalls. "By the end, I was in an altered state. It really changed my life." The television exposure established Kahane as a rising star and enabled him to launch a concert career. Two years later, he won the Artur Rubinstein competition in Israel, and the conducting degree languished incomplete.

But not forgotten. When Kahane was invited to conduct a Mozart concerto from the keyboard at the Oregon Bach Festival in the late 1980s, "that set a process in motion," and he began to combine the roles more often, a practice he still continues.

His next step was the co-founding of the Gardner Chamber Orchestra in Boston, a museum-based ensemble of students and young professional musicians that allowed Kahane to step away from the keyboard and concentrate on conducting alone. "That was my training ground, a wonderful way for me learn, because I was dealing with people who were also learning."

He had led the group for four years when he learned of a pending opening in Santa Rosa. "I had always been interested in this orchestra in particular," he recalls animatedly.

"I used to joke with [my wife] Martha that Corrick [Brown, the founding conductor of the Santa Rosa Symphony] would never retire." When Kahane learned that Brown was planning to step down, he immediately "wrote and asked for the job."

"There was strong competition" to be Brown's successor, smiles Brown. The news of the pending opening attracted several hundred applicants who were eventually narrowed to five finalists. Of that group, none had as much history with this orchestra as Kahane. "We were kind of a nurturing base for him as a pianist," Brown recalls.

Kahane first performed with the Santa Rosa Symphony back in 1975, as a short-notice substitute for an ailing soloist. Brown brought Kahane back as a featured artist several times through the 1980s, "but I had no idea he would end up as our conductor," Corrick laughs.

"His musicianship drew us to him. He was the pianist that everybody in the Bay Area would refer to, this little guy at the San Francisco Conservatory who was always everybody's favorite person to hear play."

"We thought a lot of him; he was well prepared and a good musician," recalls Polly Holbrook, a violinist with the orchestra since 1963 and now the symphony's concertmistress. "We could certainly see the growth as he would return and play with us again."

In rehearsal, Kahane is focused but relaxed, encouraging an easy interaction with the musicians, even as he firmly pushes them to ever more precise traverses of the most difficult passages. More than personal respect, there is also a professional camaraderie bound up in a mutual desire to excel.

Although he is a physically demonstrative pianist, Kahane wields the baton with less flair, concentrating on revealing the depth of the music rather than on being an entertaining presence on the podium.

Kahane's familiarity with his concertizing peers and the next generation of soloists is another plus he brings to Santa Rosa, as exemplified by the concerts last fall at which the symphony was joined by his close friend and frequent recital partner, superstar cellist Yo Yo Ma. "The joy and the energy from that concert lingers on," Holbrook sighs. "It was an extraordinary gift that they both gave to the community."

It also stands as an example of the rare resources Kahane is able to employ as a conductor. "In his travels he's working with very fine conductors, so he's heard these pieces that we're playing performed by the greats," Holbrook continues. "Its got to have an effect on his own approach to what he finds in the works he has selected."

That's one small part of the process of preparing to conduct each piece. The biggest step is intensive study of the score itself, Kahane explains. "A major symphony sometimes is a whole year of study. There are many aspects to that, analyzing the piece, coming to terms with its structure, coming to terms with the particular sound that I think the composer had in mind or the kind of sound that I would like to hear.

"Then there's a deeper part of the process that has to do with coming to terms with the meaning of these works," he continues. "I believe that most of the great works of what we refer to, for lack of a better term, as classical music, are really like works of literature that you go back to over and over again. As you reread them, their meaning becomes clearer and clearer. As I've studied and learned over the years more and more about the great composers, I think in most cases they were talking about things in their music.

"Composers really do develop their own languages, or their own dialects or sublanguages," Kahane says. "Learning to speak and understand Beethoven's language is a whole process that goes way beyond learning any particular piece. You learn what he means emotionally or psychologically by a certain chord or a certain sound in the orchestra."

To help audiences appreciate such subtleties, Kahane frequently delivers mini-lectures from the podium before performances, sharing the highlights of his intensive study of the works. "Concert-going is not a passive activity," he contends. "It should absolutely be an interaction between the composer and the orchestra and the audience."

His preparation for each performance and the extemporaneous remarks with which he introduces the works also includes "a tremendous amount of historical research, contextual research. I immerse myself in the world of the composer, the feel of the time in which the music was written. Trying to make the composer's world become really alive," he smiles. "And that's actually some of the most fun part of it."

Despite the massive amounts of time he devotes to the symphony, Kahane takes pains to ensure a personal life that allows him to appreciate the Sonoma County lifestyle with his family. Kahane and his wife (a childhood sweetheart whom he wed while they were both students in the Bay Area) were both well acquainted with Sonoma County long before they relocated here from eastern New York, and made the move quite happily. An enthusiastic cook, Kahane relishes the agricultural bounty of the wine country and grimaces at the memory of the East Coast wines he endured while living in Rochester.

He is also able to indulge a penchant for walking in the rolling hills, orchards, and pastures that surround his west county residence, and to encourage the musical directions his two children are taking. Gabe, a high school freshman, is "a very hot guitarist," his proud father says, while 8-year-old Annie "is passionate about musical comedy."

In quieter moments, Kahane enjoys recreational reading of history, poetry, fiction--"I'll go for anything as long as its good." He is also a student of languages, now studying Latin to augment his command of French, Spanish, Italian, and German.

To date, Kahane has flexed his talents in the recording studio only as a pianist, but on at least 10 discs, from a solo Bach recital on Nonesuch, to Richard Strauss with the Cincinnati Symphony on Telarc. Other releases include works by Schubert, the Brandenburg Concertos, and numerous chamber ensembles. His performance of Leonard Bernstein's Age of Anxiety was nominated as Orchestral Recording of the Year in 1992 by Gramphone magazine. He also is featured with Yo Yo Ma on last year's Sony CD release Made in America, performing works by Gershwin and Bernstein.

For the past 10 years, Kahane has also toured regularly with Yo Yo Ma, whom he met while they were both living in Boston. Onstage together, the two musicians do not make eye contact, but lean toward each other as they play, increasing their physical proximity to enhance "a natural extrasensory link with each other," Kahane explains. That also allows each to tune into the other's breathing patterns, which help shape their instrumental phrasings. The duo played a pair of sold-out Bay Area recitals in late February and will head for South America in June.

With less than a full year here, Kahane is just beginning to mold the Santa Rosa Symphony to meet his preferences, a subtle process that he sees as more a matter of shared experience than changes in personnel, although he expects a handful of new players to join the ensemble next year. Only a third or fewer of the orchestra personnel live in Sonoma County, and the rest are drawn from a large pool of instrumentalists throughout the greater Bay Area.

At the same time, the size of the hometown audience is a source of wonder and delight to the new maestro. Few communities the size of Santa Rosa support an orchestra by selling enough tickets to require each program be performed three times, Kahane says. "When I tell people about this community, how we do 'triples,' they are amazed." The per capita attendance figures in Santa Rosa are the highest in California, he confirms later, and rank strongly nationally.

"Santa Rosa is a very musical place," he observes, "with a high percentage of very cultured, highly educated residents," many of whom are concentrated in Oakmont. He also credits Brown with building an unsually broad interest in the orchestra by virtue of being "a fixture in both the cultural and the business community," which Kahane lauds as "a unique achievement."

Then, laughing a little self-consciously, he adds, "Another reason just might be that we're a really good orchestra and present exciting programs. I'd like to think that's part of it, too."

To maintain that level of support, Kahane is actively courting young listeners. Next year's concert season will feature three soloists under the age of 21, two of them still in their mid-teens, as well as the Concert Choir from Santa Rosa High School, which will join the symphony on the Christmas program next winter. "I'm really targeting this group that we're supposed to be 'losing' as symphony audiences," he states.

But the local symphony audience need not worry about losing him, Kahane says, dismissing speculation that he is using Santa Rosa merely as a steppingstone to a larger symphony. "I can't imagine wanting to conduct 18 to 24 programs a year. I'm way too busy." He shudders at the suggestion. "Ten years from now, maybe . . ." But for now, "I have a whole other career that is rewarding and challenging and takes me all over the world," he says, and occasional guest conductor bookings mean that "I'm having the opportunity to work with the bigger orchestras," such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, on an occasional basis.

"What I'm thinking about now is turning Santa Rosa into a major performance group," he says eagerly. "That's my dream, that this orchestra will be known as a real artistic force."

Jeffrey Kahane will conduct and play the piano in the Santa Rosa Sympony's program "Chamber Orchestra Classics from Three Centuries," March 16 and 18 at 8 p.m., and March 17 at 3 p.m., at the Luther Burbank Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. The program includes works by Bach, Dvorak, and Mozart, and will be discussed in pre-concert talks one hour before each performance. Call 54-MUSIC for ticket information.

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From the Mar. 14-20, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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