Sitting in the majestic Carnegie Hall, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra almost looked dwarfed by the sheer size of the stage. Cristi Andrews Cohen’s voice echoed as she recited the poem by Richard Dehmel. But then soft hums emanated from the strings, incessant but quiet at first, slowing building to a larger, richer sound that enveloped the hall.

Gabriel Kahane
Gabriel Kahane

And so began Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”). A tense piece, reflective of the anxiety of the protaganist in Dehmel’s poem, who is confessing to her lover that she is pregnant with another man’s child, Verklärte Nacht is also deeply romantic. Orpheus achieved this subtle balance perfectly. Towards the end of the piece, as the music swayed more frequently between major and minor, ripe with chromaticism, an unresolved chord rang out as the violins plaed quiet pizzicatos underneath. Draped atop this agitated musical idea, the first violin played a long legato line, an extremely romantic gesture that perfectly reflected the man’s acceptance of his lover and her unborn child.

A true precursor to Schoenberg’s exploration of free tonality and his eventual abandonment of traditional tonal harmony, Verklärte Nacht is ripe with intricacies and musical contradictions: it is tonal and atonal, anxious and carefree, gritty and delicate. Despite all of its complications, Orpheus never let up, relishing in the constant key changes, quick descending scales and dotted rhythms that finally end in a shimmering and auspicious tone.

After we had all been subdued by Schoenberg’s lush tonalities, Gabriel Kahane, the Music Alive Composer-in-Residence with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra for the last two years, jogged on stage to the center podium. His brown, curly hair bouncing, he stood before the audience in jeans, Converse and a smart blue jacket. Kahane introduced himself, the piece and the orchestra behind him, and then dove right into the performance of his centerpiece song cycle, Gabriel’s Guide to the 48 States.

In the 1930s, the American government launched the Works Progress Administration (WPA), putting thousands of Americans to work on a variety of public service projects that were meant to rebuild the country’s infrastructure as well as American morale. Working on anything from the construction of bridges and ski lodges to the restoration of one-room schoolhouses, the WPA also employed writers. What became the Federal Writers Project (FWP), these out-of-work writers crafted the American Guide Series, a set of travel guides for the United States.

Much of the libretto in Gabriel’s Guide to the 48 States is taken from these FWP guides, but it also consists of “life histories”, recorded interviews with local Americans, as well as selections from Harry Hopkins’ Spending to Save, a first-hand account of the inner workings of the WPA. The result is a rich tapestry of memories, snapshots and local oddities that colour the 1930s with a certain flair, a joie de vivre uncommon to an otherwise dark and depressive era.

Kahane’s music is the perfect blend of atonality and simple, folksy tunes. Himself switching between banjo and electric guitar, Kahane had a variety of parts written for Orpheus. At one point, you could hear horns, woodwinds, strings plus a triangle, xylophone, cow bell, woodblock and snare drum. This playful character was complemented in the woodwind parts. At various points on our journey, flutes, oboes and clarinets flourished, often as a quick burst of sound, but other times as part of a larger build up in both the libretto and the overall musical tone. With so much activity on stage, it sometimes sounded like there were 100 plus musicians on stage, as opposed to the 30-odd musicians that make up Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

Gabriel’s Guide to the 48 States is clever and fun. Kahane explored big cities, cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York where the glamour of the Roaring 20s still lingered, but he also traveled to smaller towns and recounted some interesting tales. Like in the song “Folklore (Bridgeport, Connecticut)”, where a tale about a General Washington is told in which he fools his infantry into believing his horse will eat oysters, just so he can get a seat at a crowded table in the pub. It’s in songs like this that we see a bit of the lunacy, the quirky side of the 1930s that many Americans clung to in these demoralizing times.

Kahane tells us his song cycle is a tribute to democracy, and thus, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. As a group founded on democratic ideals – they do not have a conductor, but rather a “core” team of leaders selected from the orchestra to lead a particular piece – Orpheus was the perfect ensemble to perform a piece written as a brazen retelling of American history. Combined with Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, the concert at Carnegie Hall was a tribute not only to democracy, but also to American song.