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Although born in 1981 in Venice Beach, California, the extraordinarily talented and diverse composer/musician Gabriel Kahane* now lives in Brooklyn after spending much of his youth in northern California and attending school in New England. So, it is a bit surprising that the people, architecture and lifestyle of Los Angeles and surrounding areas would have had such a lasting effect on this young artist. In June, 2014 Kahane released the CD The Ambassador, a 10-cut cohesive composition that extolls the architecture – some now existing only in photographs and memory – of a desert-by-the-sea that became the dream destination of tens of millions of Americans. It was immediately lauded as Kahane's masterpiece, and Rolling Stone declared it "One of the Year's Very Best Albums…." The text and the concept of The Amabassador cries out for a visual and theatrical presentation, and Carolina Performing Arts, having realized this potential, presented a world premiere in this form at Memorial Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
There is no shortage of individual songs about cities: Chicago, Paris, and London are just a few that come to mind, plus the bombast of Sinatra belting out "New York, New York." But, it would be hard to find a work like The Ambassador, which could be characterized as a mini-opera, that so accurately develops so many facets about a city in such a musically compelling manner. This is one of those events where your expectations are just a guess, but what you end up experiencing is completely unique, magnificently performed, and an amazing torrent of talent by Kahane and the seven other musicians involved.
It all started with the set, designed by Christine Jones. First impression was just thousands of books in piles, indiscriminately spread all across the stage – it looked a bit like my garage. A broader view was that of a fragile cityscape that could be easily destroyed by fire, earthquake, and incomprehensible decisions by city planners. Without any announcement, dimming of lights, or any fanfare, a young man in a basic black suit came out, sat at the piano, and began to sing. It took just moments to realize that we were in the presence of an artist who has the rare ability to craft a song that tells a story while employing a melodic and harmonic structure that seems simultaneously timeless and brand new. Add to that a captivating tenor voice with a wide range that retains variety yet, thankfully, avoids the all too common American Idol nausea-inducing ululations. Kahane made it clear we were in for an evening of great music and storytelling. Then the band came on: Rob Moose, guitars, Casey Foubert, electric bass and programmed effects, Ted Poor, drums, Alex Sopp, keyboard, flute and vocals, Laura Lutzke, violin, Nathan Schram, viola, and Gabriel Gabezas, cello. Space does not permit individual bios, but all of these musicians have sterling pedigrees ranging from gigs with top artists and contemporary music ensembles all the way to the New York Philharmonic.
As an aid to identifying and putting in context the buildings that make up this architectural musical, a brochure was in the program that included a map of the L.A. area with a legend that pinpoints, with exact addresses, these locations. Some, like Griffith Park, Union Station, and the Bradbury Building, are quite well known and have been seen in many movies. Others are private homes or less auspicious places that live "in infamy." Of these is the Empire Liquor Mart on Figueroa Street, the site of the 1991 shooting of 15 year-old Latasha Harlins, which, along with the Rodney King beating months earlier, precipitated the 1992 L.A. riots. This was the central and longest song of the evening: a stunningly affecting and mournful work.
Along the way there were comments on the disparity between the horrendous heat of cramped inner-city apartments and the cloudless mid-80-degree paradise of Santa Monica. Of course the movies play a major part of the life of L.A., and segments of voice clips of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall hark back to idealized film noir gangsters and dames. Musically, this is quite an eclectic work that ranges from lush ballads to Kahane taking center stage in rockers, one of which is reminiscent of Elvis Costello. The orchestrations were always interesting and added to the mood supporting the story, and the playing was superb. One puzzling aspect of the performance was Kahane's solo piano performance of what many in the audience (according to my eavesdropping) thought was his masterpiece. In the middle of what was entirely his compositions he played and sang the 1937 Jerome Kern classic "The Folks Who Live on the Hill." It was a lovely arrangement performed with great passion, but the connection escapes me.
Directed by John Tiffany, he and the entire creative staff had the good sense to not make this a showy, gee-whiz display of effects. Generally, the tasteful additions to the music itself were done to support Kahane's music and narrative. There were some wonderful moments, like a multi-angled view of a mountainside home with the insertion of characters from Pulp Fiction and near holograms of Joan Crawford.
Kahane took up a plugged-in acoustic guitar and played a solo rendition of the title of his work which may become a modern classic. Alongside an old-fashioned carousel slide projector, he sang and we viewed images of The Ambassador, considered the most elegant and historic hotel in L.A., from the perspective of a doorman who had worked there for 46 years. From the first Academy Award ceremonies to the 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy in its kitchen, its presence was essential to the city. Demolished in 2006, that wound is still felt, not unlike the architecturally criminal 1963 razing of New York's old Penn Station.
This was a visceral and profoundly moving performance. But, don't let that dissuade you from buying and listening to the recording itself if you are not lucky enough to be in a city where The Ambassador is presented like it was in Chapel Hill. (You may see the show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in December.)
*Son of pianist & conductor Jeffrey Kahane.