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Present Music’s Eclectic Season Opener

Ensemble welcomes indie composer Gabriel Kahane

Sep. 9, 2009
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At first, pop-intellectual composer Gabriel Kahane may not seem a likely match for Present Music, Milwaukee’s contemporary chamber ensemble. But the son of classical pianist Jeffrey Kahane, who will be joining the neo-classical outfit for its Sept. 12 season opener at Turner Hall Ballroom, weaves a pastiche of styles into a collective musical esthetic that is its own genre, according to Kevin Stalheim, Present Music’s artistic director.

“A lot of people found Gabriel to be an interesting choice for me,” says Stalheim, a trumpeter by musical trade. “Most of what we do doesn’t fit into his pop-world approach. But the way he blends various older styles into a musical mongrelism—can I say that?—gives him his own voice, which results in a fascinating little musical ride.”

Kahane has performed with a variety of collaborators, including indie-rocker Sufjan Stevens, Nickel Creek’s Chris Thile and violinist Hilary Hahn. The 27-year-old pianist blends bluegrass, opera and blistering chromatic counterpart into a unique musical amalgam that Stalheim feels more than suits his ensemble. Kahane gained critical notice with his composition “For the Union Dead,” based on the poetry of Robert Lowell. It’s part of the 11-song cycle he will perform at Present Music’s opening concert.

“He’s a very talented composer and performer whose larger works by necessity require musical collaboration,” Stalheim says. “That’s where we come in.”

The evening also will feature two compositions by John Adams: “Gnarly Buttons” and “John’s Book of Alleged Dances.” Present Music and the London Sinfonietta originally co-commissioned “Gnarly Buttons,” and Present Music performed the composition’s American premiere in 1997. The ensemble will be joined by Present Music clarinetist Bill Helmers, who also performs with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, for what Stalheim describes as “an irreverent whirlwind of a clarinet concerto.”

“Chamber music by its nature is complex and intimate, and ‘Gnarly Buttons’ fits that description,” Stalheim says. “Adams is very accessible and writes some gorgeous songs, but at the last moment they head to pretty ‘gnarly’ places. That’s an apt name for the composition.”

“John’s Book of Alleged Dances” is a collection of 10 dances for string quartet accompanied by a recorded percussion track of prepared piano sounds. The result is a work that easily transitions from witty to intimate to beautiful, but is always wildly virtuosic.

Adams, who’s best known for his operetta Nixon in China, has a rhythmic quality that appeals to Present Music, along with some interesting and often impressive orchestration that helps define his signature sound, Stalheim says. “He’s also not pretentious and willing to have a little fun,” the artistic director adds. “I like the contrast.”

The esthetic of both composers, and especially Kahane, speaks to a current musical period that is particularly rich in its styles, creativity and compositional energy.

“Things are unusually active these days,” Stalheim says. “The composers are well trained and well aware of world and pop music influences. They are no longer dogmatic, but provide us with exciting choices that are influencing many of our performances.”

Present Music’s season opener with Gabriel Kahane and Gnarly Buttons begins at 7:30 p.m. at the Turner Hall Ballroom on Saturday, Sept. 12.


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