The music mensch

After 10 years in the North Bay, conductor Jeffrey Kahane is almost ready to pass the baton.

After the 2004-05 season, the longtime music director of the Santa Rosa Symphony will depart to take over the Colorado Symphony in Denver. But the Sonoma County resident isn’t putting up the “for sale” sign on his front lawn anytime soon.

“It’s not clear that we will leave California,” says the L.A.-born-and-bred Kahane. “Our daughter, Annie, still has two more years of high school.”

Santa Rosa has been good to Kahane and his family, which includes wife, Martha, and 23-year-old son, Gabriel, a musician living in New York. Not only did the arts community embrace Kahane with open arms, but Santa Rosa Congregation Shomrei Torah — where Annie became bat mitzvah — embraced the family as well. Annie was the first in her family to have the coming-of-age ceremony.

“It was incredibly moving,” recalls Kahane of the ceremony. “Annie announced six years ago that she wanted to be a bat mitzvah. It was at her initiative, and so we got involved.”

Though Kahane’s Jewish ancestry runs deep (his mother was a refugee from prewar Nazi Germany), that is not the case with his wife. Her parents had converted from Judaism to Christianity, and she was raised as a Christian. But over time she felt something shift internally.

“When we’d been married about 15 years, Martha began to feel very uncomfortable,” recalls Kahane. “She always knew Judaism was part of her, and she was no longer comfortable being something else. We joined a synagogue in Rochester, N.Y., where we were living at the time.”

Since then, Kahane has drawn closer to his religious roots, and has enjoyed exploring them through his art. He is a champion of Jewish-influenced classical music, both new works and standard repertoire.

He recently performed for the first time the Shostakovich E minor piano trio from 1944, which the composer dedicated to one of his students, a Jew who perished in the war.

“Shostakovich’s love of Jewish folk music is deep and strong,” says Kahane. “The ambiguity of Jewish melody can be joyous and sorrowful. I’ve loved the piece for years, but had never played it. I was overwhelmed.”

He loves klezmer, and one of his favorite contemporary composers is Argentina’s Osvaldo Golijov, a Jew who infuses much of his work with Hebraic melodies and references.

He’s a personal friend of Golijov’s, and of nearly everyone else of note in the classical music world. In a field known for temperamental head cases, Kahane is an artist revered for his kindness and humor as well as his talent.

The first indication that he had a musical future came at age 3 when Kahane’s parents took him to see the late piano maestro Artur Rubenstein. At the end of the concert, while the adults applauded, little Jeffrey, mesmerized, walked up the aisle to shake Rubenstein’s hand.

Something must have rubbed off. Kahane began piano studies soon after and displayed precocious talent. By his teens, he was routinely winning piano competitions. He left Beverly Hills High School early to attend the San Francisco Conservatory, his first Bay Area beachhead.

By his 20s, Kahane was a top soloist, touring the world. But in 1988, he began transitioning to conducting.

“As a teen,” he says, “it wasn’t something I thought about all the time, like being a pianist or a rock ‘n’ roll star. But as I played with orchestras, I became fascinated by the potential. Then something happened that was a driving factor: the realization that I’m an educator as much as a performer. That’s been at the heart of everything I’ve done.”

He has been music director of the Santa Rosa Symphony for 10 years, as well as conductor of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra since 1997. Kahane also launched the Green Music Festival, now in its fifth year at Sonoma State University.

It’s not strictly classical music for Kahane. He performed with rock bands as a teen, and a couple of years ago had the chance to conduct the orchestra for a week of dates with one of his boyhood idols, James Taylor.

“It was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” he says. “Standing on the podium when he started to sing ‘The Water is Wide’ was incredible.”

As for the role Judaism plays in his life today, Kahane says “The religion interests me, but I felt alienated because I couldn’t read the Hebrew. Still, I feel profoundly Jewish and it’s been something I’ve certainly begun to integrate into my artistic life.”

While no one will mistake Denver for the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Kahane should be able to carry on from the Mile High City, Jewishly and musically. “It’s a fabulous orchestra,” he says of his new ensemble, “the greatest American orchestra that nobody knows about.”

How long he will stay in Colorado is anybody’s guess, but with his schedule laid out literally years in advance, Kahane tends to think in long blocks of time.

“This is a seven-year commitment,” he says, “maybe more. But I don’t worry about it. I worry more about the world.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.