An aural family scrapbook: Jeffrey and Gabriel Kahane with Oregon Symphony

Father and son take a nostalgic journey with new concerto for piano and orchestra.


It is a rare event when a father and son work together to make an artistic statement, but that was the case with Jeffrey and Gabriel Kahane at the Oregon Symphony concert on Saturday March 12 at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Jeffrey (per) performed the West Coast premiere of Heirloom, a piano concerto written by Gabriel (fils) as a co-commissioned from the orchestra. Billed as an “aural family scrapbook,” the concerto was energetic–but the orchestra dominated the soundscape, which was too bad, considering the brilliant pianism of Jeffrey. 

Gabriel, an acclaimed singer and songwriter who is the Oregon Symphony’s Creative Chair, completed Heirloom in 2020. According to the program notes, the three-movement concerto segued through pieces of Kahane-family history, touching on his parent’s passion for folk music, then connecting with his grandmother and the music of Alban Berg, and ending with an exploration of childhood innocence via his young daughter during the pandemic. He dedicated the piece to his dad, who seemed to enjoy every second playing it.

The concerto’s first movement, “Guitars in my Attic,” snapped to attention with busy jousting between the orchestra and the piano. If there was a folk-song element, it was very-well disguised, but perhaps it came out when, in a couple of places, Jeffrey stood up and reached into the piano to dampen or pluck the strings. The movement ended with a slightly nostalgic sound. The second movement, “My Grandmother knew Alban Berg,” began as a lament and transitioned to a much faster pace before settling into phrases that reminded me of Brahms. The final movement, “VERA’S CHICKEN-POWERED TRANSIT MACHINE” (intentional all-caps) had a motoric style, and frequently featured muted brass. It really picked up the pace going down the back stretch and swelled to a satisfying forte at the end. 

Overall, the sound from the piano was frequently overshadowed by dazzling effects from the orchestra. No matter how much sparkle Jeffrey emitted from the keyboard, the piano never got the upper-hand – even during a brief cadenza. The piece offered an intriguing collage of styles influenced by jazz, pop, and the Romantic era, and it appealed to the audience, which rewarded it with sustained, loud applause. 

Stormy heavens

The concert began on a solemn and heartfelt note with a performance of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, dedicated to Ukraine and complemented with blue and yellow lighting on the drapery above the proscenium. The musicians, led with terrific intensity by music director David Danzmayr, delved into the music with awe-inspiring soulfulness that culminated in a profound plea. Concertmaster Sarah Kwak, violist Charles Noble, violinist Chien Tan, and cellist Nancy Ives notably excelled with their exposed passages. The second set of strings, positioned behind the larger string orchestra, created an ethereal, far-away sound – as if from the heavens.

After intermission, Danzmayr and company gave Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” a superb performance. The music-making of this beloved piece was fresh and inspired. Under Danzmayr’s emotional urging, the musicians wonderfully conveyed the storyline, evoking a pleasant country scene with a flowing brook and folk dancing, followed by a violent thunderstorm and happy ending. The bird-like sounds from the woodwinds and the storm-surge of pummeling on the timpani by Jonathan Greeney were just a few of the highlights that made this work so gratifying. 

The concert was briefly interrupted twice by an audience member who brought flowers to the front of the stage. The first time occurred after the Vaughan Williams, when a woman handed Danzmayr a bouquet of sunflowers and waved her arms emphatically. But then she returned while Danzmayr and Gabriel Kahane were in the middle of their introductory remarks for the piano concerto. She had a bouquet of white flowers and started to scream a lot of unintelligible words.

Fortunately, security people quickly got her to leave without using force. Danzmayr and Kahane handled it all gracefully. It is, of course, troubling to see this happen, but the show must go on.

Gabriel Kahane and Oregon Symphony return soon: Open Music with Missy Mazzoli at Mississippi Studios on March 15; and Be As Water, featuring Andy Akiho and Timo Andres, at The Reser Center on April 15.

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James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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