Sunday, February 27, 2011

Concert review: Alisa Weilerstein and Gabriel Kahane at the Southern

When: Saturday, Feb. 19, 2011 • Where: Southern TheaterWho: Alisa Weilerstein, cello; Gabriel Kahane, piano, guitar, voice

Gabriel Kahane by Jen Snow
For years I never went to the Southern Theater in Minneapolis, and now I can’t stay away. Their programming—a mix of music, dance, and theater—is fresh and intriguing. I’m especially drawn to the music, where I’m being schooled in contemporary classical, indie pop, folk, electronica, and what happens, for instance, when hip-hop artists take on jazz seriously and thoughtfully. I might not always love it, but I often do, and even when I don’t, I come away feeling I’ve learned and/or heard something new.

Saturday’s concert by Gabriel Kahane and Alisa Weilerstein lured me in because Kahane, a young composer/performer, had written music for a poem called “Little Sleep’s Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight” by the great American poet Galway Kinnell. A big, craggy man with a resonant voice, Kinnell had come to Carleton College in Northfield when I was a student there and read that poem aloud. Framed by the actions of a father comforting his baby daughter (“You cry, waking from a nightmare…. Back you go, into your crib”), it’s a meditation on parenthood, mortality, love, yearning, life, death, memory, family, grief, and joy. I remember being moved to tears at Kinnell’s reading.

Kahane’s “Little Sleep’s Head” ended the program. A lot happened before. Cellist Weilerstein, also very young, came out first alone and played Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3 in C Major. I think she was halfway through the Sarabande before I sat back in my chair, and I might have been holding my breath. Weilerstein played the old familiar piece as if it had been written yesterday, with passion, power, absolute confidence, and a pure, hot stream of emotion. In the resonant acoustic of the Southern, you could hear her bow on the strings, and the singing of the wood. It was exhilarating.

After Weilerstein exited, Kahane sprinted to the piano, his golden curls covered by a knit cap, for which he apologized. “To me, this weather is arctic,” he explained. He played and sang three songs: one called “Charming Disease,” another about talking into blackness, and another (from a cycle called “Craigslistlieder”) about a sandwich relish. His voice is lovely, with a range that includes falsetto, and he doesn’t mind being silly, sometimes engaging in sung conversations with himself using two different voices. 

He moved to electrified acoustic guitar for “Where Are the Arms” and a song about Los Angeles and depression inspired by Joan Didion. Back to the piano for a song that reminded me of “Norwegian Wood,” about going to a girl’s house and feeling nothing in the morning, and one called “Durrants” (“Our apartment was too small for our luggage and our arguments”). The closer: a hilarious “Neurotic and Lonely” from “Craigslistlieder.” Afterward, he told us he’d had several MRIs.

Quick take: Unexpected lyrics, some quite funny, some touching and sad. Appealing voice. Clearly no worries about what’s proper/not proper to sing. Anti-stuffy. Altogether delightful.

Alisa Weilerstein
Intermission, after which Weilerstein returned for Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 in C Minor. Good thing she didn’t start with this, or we all would have been too wrung out for the rest of the evening. How she felt about the piece—what it’s like to play it, to hear it up close and feel it in one’s body, to explore the emotions contained within the notes—was written all over her face. Again, the ink could have been wet on the page, as immediate as this cornerstone of the repertoire sounded under Weilerstein’s fingers and bow. Three centuries fell away. I couldn’t believe my luck at being there to hear it.

And finally, the major work of the evening, the Midwest premiere of Kahane’s “Little Sleep’s Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight,” performed by both Kahane (on piano and voice, singing the lines of the poem) and Weilerstein. I can read the program notes and see that this work is a combination of song and classical movements: moderato, scherzo, grave, rondo, passacaglia. Beyond that, I don’t speak classical. So I called on someone who does.

Vaughn Ormseth, a senior producer at Minnesota Public Radio (American Public Media's Performance Today, St. Paul Sunday) was at the concert and generously agreed to share his thoughts about Kahane and “Little Sleep’s Head.”

“To me, Kahane has it all," Ormseth said. "He’s so grounded in classical technique and the classical sound world, and that gives his pop music a richness that I find exhilarating. His timing and his sense of instrumentation are very advanced and accomplished.

“In ‘Little Sleep’s Head,’ the words and music are in perfect sync. [Kahane] has an utterly natural sense of how language works with music. The poem is strange and beautiful, and the music was, too. I found it very emotional. In that space [the Southern], they were all in perfect balance: voice, piano, cello.

“It’s an ambitious piece. He obviously wanted to write a major piece, and he did. I think no one can hold a candle to him in the folk-pop world, and then you’ve got this other side that’s very sophisticated in a classical sense.

“In 1926, Ravel composed a song cycle. 'Chansons madecasses,' for soprano, flute, cello, and piano. Maybe [Kahane] is patterning some of what he does after that. Or it could be completely one-of-a-kind, his own creation.

“On a very simple level, we heard great poetry, and a very poetic expression of the poem in the music. We heard a fusion of styles, classical and ballad. Some of it was melodic—Kahane has a great gift for melody—but he doesn’t shy away from dissonance. His use of intervals is not something you would hear a pop singer use. He shifts keys very convincingly. His use of intervals and chords is very surprising.

“So we heard classical music breeze through a high-level pop sensibility. It was a very American experience.”

Ormseth also had high praise for Weilerstein. “She’s one of the great cellists in the world now. She’s musically and technically flawless, and emotionally accomplished. To hear her that close…that alone should have sold the house. We could hear the bow scratching against the strings. I’ve been listening to the Bach cello suites for years—they are some of my favorite music—and I entered into those two suites in a completely new way.”


Addendum: After reading this review, Ormseth had more to say about Kinnell's poem and Kahane's composition.

"After pondering your question, 'What did we hear?' I went back to the poem itself. I think the poem's force comes from its combination of the narrator's fatherly tenderness and his simultaneous awareness of mortality, of the reality that will, sooner or later, separate him from his daughter and break the intense bond of love with her, at least in an earthly sense. So that's where much of the poem's spell originates--its darkness is both the dreamy world of childhood bedtime, of sleep, and of the (far more estranging) shadow of death, and the drifting between the two.

"All of which to say is that when I re-entered the poem, Kahane's compositional choices made even more sense, especially the instrumental explorations between the singing. Maybe they're a kind of immersion in the wordless realities beneath the text?"


• Read "Little Sleep's Head" in its entirety here.
• Search MPR for several conversations with Gabriel Kahane.
• “Little Sleep’s Head” was not the first time Kahane has set words by an American poet to music. His “For the Union Dead” song cycle features poems by Robert Lowell.
• Download “Craigslistlieder” for free here

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