‘I really do love playing in small spaces,” says multi-instrumentalist Gabriel Kahane, describing the difference between playing enormous shows to thousands of people and doing smaller shows, like the 100-seat fundraiser he’ll be playing this week in Sebastopol.
“With a small show, it’s more fun to ‘run the room,’ as they say in the biz. I’m really looking forward to the Sebastopol show, for a whole number of reasons—and getting to play a focused, intimate show for a few people, that’s just one of them.”
For another, the show at the French Garden—a fundraiser for Main Stage West Theater—is a kind of a homecoming for Kahane. Twenty years ago, he was a student at Santa Rosa High School, best known then as the son of classical pianist Jeffrey Kahane, former conductor of the Santa Rosa Symphony. Today, the younger Kahane is a star in his own right.
As a composer, he’s written original pieces for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Kronos Quartet and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. His own recordings, bearing a style similar to Rufus Wainwright, have made him someone to watch among fans of alternative music. His recent CD, The Ambassador—a sparkling collection of songs inspired by 10 different building in Los Angeles—was proclaimed one of the best albums of 2014 by Rolling Stone magazine. NPR called it a CD that “needs to be heard.”
Currently, Kahane is on tour with the experimental country-bluegrass-classical band the Punch Brothers, working their way across the country. But Kahane will be taking a night off on March 29 to play for just 100 people, tops. It’s a favor to his old friend and mentor, Kahane’s former high school drama teacher John Craven, whose wife Beth Craven is now artistic director of Main Stage West.
“John was one of the more influential figures in my life, as far as my early creative development is concerned,” says Kahane, on the phone from New York where he now resides. “A few months ago, John and Beth came to see a concert of mine in Seattle.” Afterward, Beth Craven contacted Kahane and asked if he’d be open to doing a fundraiser for Main Stage West.
“I got back immediately, telling her I’d be honored,” he says. “I’m delighted to be doing this show, in part as a way of giving back to the community that raised me, in a sense.”
The hot-ticket event on Sunday includes an elegant dinner, auctions and more. Local actor Jeffrey Weissman (Back to the Future II and III, Pale Rider) will be the host and auctioneer.
“I do a lot of big shows now,” says Kahane, whose theatrical roots are still active. He composes regularly for the theater and collaborated with Broadway director John Tiffany (Once,
The Glass Menagerie) to create a full-on theatrical staging for his concert tour of The Ambassador. “But in between New York and L.A., my audience is still very much developing. In the context of the tour I’m doing with Punch Brothers, I’m opening for them, and, yes, those are bigger rooms—a thousand or 2,000 people—but those are the Punch Brothers’ audiences, not mine.
“In a small space like the French Garden,” he continues, “it’s easier to make the audience feel as if they are all having the same experience at the same time. That doesn’t happen when there are 2,000 people in the audience.”
Asked what he learned from Craven, the Art Quest program and the whole Santa Rosa high school experience, Kahane wastes no time in answering.
“For me there was a real rigor and purity to the work that we were doing. It’s pretty improbable that at a public high school we could be doing plays by Chekhov and Oscar Wilde, Caryl Churchill and Tony Kushner. That’s not your typical high school drama fare. And we really dug deep into those plays! It was a pretty extraordinary experience.”
That said, the show Kahane plans for this weekend will be relatively stripped of theatricality, focusing on the drama of the songs themselves, which—as anyone knows who’s listened to Kahane’s work—will be plenty full of drama, comedy and narrative power.
“I will do a sort of tasty menu, sampling various aspects of my work,” he says, playfully nodding to the fact that he’ll be performing in a restaurant. “I’ll do a number of songs from The Ambassador, a couple of songs from Where Are the Arms, my previous album—and probably a classic or two.”
Kahane’s affection for the indelible tunes of the American Songbook is part of his growing reputation.
“That’s just one of the things I learned from John,” he says. “An appreciation for the classics.”