Jeffery Kahane is not a big man. Short and compact, the most obvious sign of his possible supernatural powers is his wiry halo of hair.
But Kahane did the work of two men—and perhaps more—when he lead the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra this weekend.
Earlier in the week, the MSO announced that conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali was ill and could not travel to Milwaukee, and that Kahane—the scheduled piano soloist–would step in as conductor for both the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique and the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4.
Conducting a concerto from the piano isn’t unheard of. Mitsuko Uchida and Murray Perahia have performed and recorded Mozart this way. But Beethoven is a bit of a different story, not just because of the technical demands it makes on the pianist. There is more ebbs, flows and swells in Beethoven, shifts in tempo and dynamics that require the sure—and visible—hand of a conductor.
But Kahane was there. With the lidless piano turned so that he faced the orchestra, he wove the piano and its orchestral accompaniment into a seamless whole. At times, he’d execute a bravura run, cueing the strings in on the final note with a nod of his head. While the concertos familiar opening piano “chorale” had the requisite gravitas, there was nothing ponderous about this Beethoven. The orchestra matched Kahane’s fleet, nimble handling of the thematic material, driving the music forward with punchy, dance-like dotted rhythms in the second theme. But Kahane also found all the lyrical beauty in the glorious extended first-movement cadenza. And beautifully captured the spiritual yearning of one of Beethoven’s most glorious achievements.
The MSO matched Kahane’s ambition and acumen with some of the best playing I’ve heard all season, in both the concerto and in Berlioz’s barn-burner of a symphonic tone poem. The strings were gloriously warm, and the winds played with beautiful cohesion. The brass—beefed up for the Berlioz with added players, including MSO Executive Director Mark Niehaus—were brilliant and secure. Sometimes, unfortunately, too brilliant–even an added plexiglass damper panel on stage couldn’t keep them from booming over the strings in some passages.
Still, it was everything you could hope from the “father” of modern orchestration. Kahane helped the orchestra tap the Berlioz’s sonic glory—with tight and dramatic contrasts and a well-balanced sound throughout.
It was another fascinating program of contrasts—Beethoven’s spiritual yearning coupled with Berlioz’s fearless and profane journey into the dreaming unconscious—and Kahane helped bring them together beautifully.