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Jeffrey Kahane created a music festival to speak out against oppression

Jeffrey Kahane is retiring after 20 years as conductor of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.
Jeffrey Kahane is retiring after 20 years as conductor of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.
CM Artists
Jeffrey Kahane is retiring after 20 years as conductor of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.
Jeffrey Kahane conducting the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.
Lee Salem Photography

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After 20 years, Jeffrey Kahane is retiring as music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

A conductor and a pianist, Kahane led the orchestra in interpreting historical masterworks, as well as commissioning new pieces by a wide range of contemporary composers. He’s also the mastermind behind the Lift Every Voice festival — an event promoting community engagement and classical music with a message of peace.

At the heart of this year’s program is a musical by Kurt Weill — the German-Jewish composer who fled Nazi Germany in the '20s and took up asylum in the U.S. A piece he wrote, “Lost In The Stars,” brings together gospel, jazz and opera under one egalitarian vision.

"Lost in the Stars" was inspired by the 1948 novel, “Cry, the Beloved Country,” about South Africa and apartheid, and was Weill’s statement against racial prejudice suffered all over the world.

Kahane’s own mother and grandparents survived the Holocaust and escaped to the U.S. When he stopped by The Frame studios this week, he started by telling host John Horn how his own family history motivated him to create this festival.

Interview Highlights:

On how his family's escape from Nazi Germany inspired him to speak out against prejudice:

My mother and my grandmother didn't talk a lot about Germany, and even though I felt strongly and identified with my German Jewish heritage, I didn't ask a lot of questions. If I did ask questions, my mother would often say, I don't remember — which may or may not have been true. She experienced a lot growing up. She experienced her teenage years in Nazi Germany. After my grandmother died, one of my uncles found among her papers a lengthy document written in German that none of us had known existed, called "Notes from Buchenwald concentration camp." And when I read that document, suddenly this was no longer ancient history, it was no longer an abstraction, it was deeply personal. This was my mother's father and I was reading his words about his experience. 

This particular project, "Lift Every Voice," it's very important to stress that this is not a project about the Holocaust. The theme of the festival has to do with speaking out against oppression, against injustice of all forms, in all places and at all times. 

On why Kurt Weill's "Lost In The Stars" resonated with him:

Weill, who came here as a refugee, who had to flee Germany because he was a Jew — he was not only a Jew, but he was also a radical artistically. So as with the case with every Jewish composer, his music was banned. He realized, fortunately, early enough that he had to get out. He went to Paris first and then came to the States. In 1949, he and his colleague, Maxwell Anderson, who wrote the book and lyrics for "Lost In The Stars," decided they wanted to do something theatrically and musically that would address the awful situation of black Americans. They chose to do it and found this ideal vehicle in Alan Paton's novel. It was both more practical, more realistic and perhaps more effective in a way to write a piece about apartheid and, in so doing, asking Americans to look our own segregation straight in the eye.

"Cry, the Beloved Country" author Alan Paton with "Lost in the Stars" composer Kurt Weill and playwright Maxwell Anderson, circa 1950.
Keystone/Getty Images

On whether the piece is relevant to a modern audience:

I think it is certainly fair to say that as a country we obviously have made tremendous strides. The fact that we just had a two-term African American president is certainly a testament to that, but it is also true that racism is very much alive in this country. I woke up on the morning after the election to see an image of a swastika painted on a wall in South Philly and, needless to say, it made my blood run cold. It also made me feel that this project that we're doing is indeed far more timely even than I could have imagined two-and-a-half years ago when I started working to develop it. 

One of Weill's most extraordinary gifts, something which almost no other 20th Century composer had to this degree, was his ability to speak so many different musical languages. The show — some of it sounds like gospel, some of it sounds like jazz, some of it sounds like opera. And he does it all brilliantly. It's so moving and so powerful. The diversity of the music itself is a reflection of his commitment to the idea of equality.

The "Lift Every Voice" festival runs from Jan. 14-29.

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