The greatest pieces of music tell a story. Whether imparted by the composer, or imbued by us (like Joan Didion's stories "we tell ourselves … in order to live"), these stories permeate all music that makes our heart beat and our breath quicken. Sunday night's performance at the University of California Los Angeles's Royce Hall by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra was conductor and Music Director Jeffrey Kahane's penultimate concert series with the group. Before the orchestra had even started on the first movement of the program's centerpiece, Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, Kahane proved himself to be a master storyteller and wielder of a fierce moral compass.
Before the music began, the orchestra took a few minutes to celebrate Robert Dolan, its departing librarian. Dolan has deep familial ties to LACO—his father was its first librarian from 1968 through 1975, and his twin sister took over the position from 1975 to 1995.
The program opened with an excerpt of the overture from "Fidelio," Beethoven's only opera, which was cut short following a brief (but charming) horn solo. It's fairly common for the Ninth symphony to stand alone on a concert program; the piece runs anywhere from slightly over an hour to closer to 80 minutes. But Kahane's first performance of the work with LACO was no casual affair.
Kahane then took over the role of teacher and explainer of the evening's music. In "Fidelio," a woman named Leonore dresses herself as a male prison guard (the titular Fidelio) in order to rescue her husband Florestan, who is locked away in a political prison. The opera has been celebrated since the premiere of its final version in 1814 for its tale of liberty, freedom, and dignity. As such, Kahane argued that it was inextricably entwined with Beethoven's final symphony.
Kahane launched into a series of excerpts from the Ninth. Although grand in scale, the origins of the Symphony No. 9 are quite humble. Kahane showed how two intervals in the openings bars of the piece serve as building blocks for everything to come. He also illustrated the primacy of the "Ode to Joy" melody throughout the work. In each of the three movements preceding the grand finale, the instantly recognizable melody is hidden away, sometimes sped up and with a different rhythm, or with additional notes thrown in to obscure its true nature. Once Kahane had pointed out these hidden instances, it was impossible not to hear them during the final performance. Classical music lacks the instant catchiness of pop music—it's often necessary to hear pieces multiple times for their full emotional weight to be felt. Although the final "Ode to Joy" is instantly recognizable across the globe, the first three movements don't instantly reveals their pleasures. By deconstructing them, Kahane was creating a portal into their deeper meanings for the audience to traverse.
Though an excellent explainer of music, Kahane is perhaps an even greater defender of our moral heart. Sifting through the text of the "Ode to Joy" by Friedrich von Schiller and Beethoven's setting, Kahane showed how Beethoven used repetition and embellishment to single out the words "alle menschen," or "all men." But in Beethoven's conception, men does not mean males, but humans in general. The note F#, strongly associated with the world "all," is repeated dozens of times. "He's effectively asking 'what part of all don't you understand?'" said Kahane.
The utter necessity of Kahane's analysis of the symphony becomes apparent when considering the kind of political contexts in which it has been used. The symphony was conducted by Leonard Bernstein as the Berlin Wall fell, with the word "freedom" inserted in place of "joy." But it was also played as the Berlin Wall was erected. The great conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, who would contact a stunning version of the symphony in the 1950s, was also forced to perform it in 1942 for Adolf Hitler's birthday, atop a stage decked out in Nazi swastikas. The piece has been heralded by communists and fascists alike, by brutal dictators, as well as their foes. Even in film, the piece has soundtracked the fantasies of a violent sexual predator in "A Clockwork Orange." Although Beethoven's (and Schiller's) intentions seemed so obvious in Kahane's telling, he made it clear that the music's legacy is far more complicated.
Kahane segued from the swastikas that forever cast a shadow on the Ninth Symphony to a subject far more contemporary: the murder of nine African American congregants of the Emmanuel Black Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015 by Dylann Roof. Roof, who came under the sway of White supremacism, was seen in photographs taken before the murder wearing flags from the apartheid nations of Rhodesia and South Africa, as well as waving a Confederate battle flag. Symbols of hate are continuously being resurrected, even today. Kahane returned to Beethoven's statement on the dignity of humankind: "There is no dictionary in the world where 'all' means 'some.'"
Kahane finished the lecture with a brief story, a defense of American democracy written by a refugee student in a nearby high school. Though easy for those of us who have grown up with it to dismiss, the refugee perhaps best understood the importance of democracy. Having lived amidst pain and destruction, the American system seemed like a great blessing. The essay concluded with the simple statement: "American democracy is life."
The essay was not written by a refugee from a war-torn Middle Eastern nation, nor a turbulent African or Latin American state. Rather, Kahane was engaged in a bit of artful misdirection—he revealed the essay had been written over 70 years ago by his mother. She was one of the last Jews to escape Hamburg prior to the start of the Second World War, prior to the doomed voyage of the S.S. St. Louis, the so-called "Voyage of the Damned." The 900 Jewish refugees aboard that ship were at first denied entry into Cuba, then into the United States. With no nation willing to accept its passengers, the St. Louis returned to Germany, where two-thirds of the Jewish refugees were murdered in the death camps. "Both of these stories are true. Both of them are my story. And both of them are your story."
Kahane has spoken about the S.S. St. Louis before, and that historical memory clearly weighs on him amidst the anti-immigrant fervor gripping parts of this nation. There were gasps as his reversal was revealed, and sniffles and moist eyes throughout Royce Hall by the end of his tale. After an intermission, Kahane, LACO and the Los Angeles Master Chorale returned to the stage to finally perform Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in its entirety. It might have been an anticlimactic ending to the night after the passion and raw emotion of Kahane's story, but he unleashed those same emotions from Beethoven's music.
Kahane took a fairly moderate approach to tempos, neither glacial nor incensed, fitting after his denouncement of extremism. The wind sections shone, particularly the oboe and the French horns. Their lines sailed over the orchestra with impeccable power and clarity. In the epic final movement, Kahane allowed the orchestra and chorus to soar. The performance brought to life Schiller's words: "Run, brothers, your race,/Joyful, as a hero to victory." Kahane's tenure as Music Director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra is nearly complete, almost at the finish line. Rather than slowing down, he's sprinting toward the end.
Reach Staff Reporter Brian Marks here.