I was blessed to be present in Carnegie Hall this evening for the first New York performance of Gabriel Kahane’s absolutely gorgeous song cycle, “Gabriel’s Guide to the 48 States,” performed by the composer with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. This was the final OCO Carnegie subscription concert of the season, and it really ended on a high note. Before Kahane’s piece, the ensemble performed the string orchestra version of Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht with silken grace.
Kahane, composer-in-residence with OCO this year, was commissioned to write a season-ending work. He selected passages from the American Guide Series, a set of state tour books commissioned by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration as a “make work” project for unemployed writers. The resulting books provide a panoramic accounting of the United States in the New Deal period, struggling to regain its economic and social footing, bursting with new-found energy and hopeful optimism, but still struggling. In addition to these texts, he also used some interviews that were conducted by the writers, as well as some commentary about the project by WPA’s director, Harry Hopkins.
The result is an eleven-section song cycle in varying styles creating a musical panorama to reflect the verbal panorama. In addition, whether consciously or not, Kahane’s musical settings reflect the influences of the early-20th-century American symphonists whose music defined an Americana sound at that time: Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, William Schuman, Walter Piston, Virgil Thompson. I even heard bits that sounded like Charles Ives. But none of this was quotation, and none of it was heavy-handed or derivative. The musical language seemed very fresh and original, as a natural development or synthesis of that American national orchestral sound of the period — although precisely this music would not have been written at that time, because it is also a product of somebody who grew up and absorbed his musical influences from the later age of Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and the popular music of the rest of the 20th century and into the 21st. (Kahane was born in 1981 in California and now lives in Brooklyn.)
Kahane stood in front of the orchestra, electric guitar and banjo at the ready, serving as narrator and troubador. He has a pleasant singing voice, which was perfect to “put over” this music, and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra was astonishing in their close partnership with the composer. I was impressed by his masterful orchestration, his rich harmonies, the way the music naturally fitted with the texts and enhanced them. There was humor and pathos, and he had me close to tears at least once. In short, this is a terrific piece of work by an important young composer.
I am hoping that it is a work in progress, since I think he could well write a few more songs to hit parts of the country that are a bit underrepresented. This is, after all a “Guide to the 48 States,” but the states of the old Confederacy are largely ignored (one song evoking musical traditions in Alabama), the southwest apart from California is ignored (no Texas!!!!), and other areas could use some representation as well. (Hello, New England?? One humorous anecdote about George Washington at a Connecticut tavern en route to take command of the Continental Army in Cambridge is all there is for that region.) Orchestra commissions tend to be specific about desired lengths, so I expect he was limited as to what he could comfortably include, but I hope this work evolves to contain more. And, of course, having had the experience of performing it, I expect the composer can see places to cut and tighten, to revise orchestration, and to continue shaping the piece. But what he has thus far is really prime stuff, and congratulations are surely in order.
My prior experience with this composer has been limited to a handful of songs with piano accompaniment – his amusing Craigslistlieder cycle and a fine song about his neighborhood in Brooklyn that was part of the 5 Boroughs Songbook commissioned by 5 Boroughs Music Festival. This new piece suggests to me that this composer is worth hearing in larger forms using larger forces, and I hope to hear much more of his music in the future.