Music for the Winter Solstice, Music on Main’s annual celebration of all things seasonal, is treasured for its resolute refusal to traffic in Christmas clichés. Artistic director David Pay recognizes that the shortest days of the year are a time to mix contemplation and community, and his programming reliably delivers a warm sonic embrace without ever reverting to treacly sentiment or theological propaganda.
This year, though, guest musician Gabriel Kahane wants to cheat, just a little.
“As a Jewish guy, there is a lot of sacred music from the Christian tradition that I adore, but I’m also respectful of Dave’s desire to keep it totally secular,” the pianist, singer, songwriter, composer, and newly installed creative chair of the Oregon Symphony tells the Straight, while celebrating U.S. Thanksgiving at his parents’ Los Angeles home. “So we might try to sneak in something that’s sacred music with all the Christianity stripped away from it—which could result in a certain carol being performed without the words.”
He laughs, and admits that other than this—which he has yet to run by his fellow performers, Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa and Caroline Shaw—he’s still puzzling over what to bring to the show. Which might seem odd, in that his songs give the impression of being deeply rooted in the colder months, but as Kahane points out, that’s not entirely borne out by what’s on the page.
“It’s funny, but when Dave called me about this, I sort of had the same impression of my work. I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, the seasons are constantly alluded to in my music.’ And then I went back through the catalogue and couldn’t really come up with much of anything,” he says, laughing. “But there’s an exploration of a lot of emotionally vulnerable terrain that maybe makes us perceive things as being more autumnal or wintry than they necessarily are.”
Kahane admits to a fondness for long winter nights, noting that he does a lot of his best work in the hours before dawn, and that his most recent song cycle, Book of Travelers, was written during a November train ride across the United States following the shock of the current White House occupant’s election victory. He’ll probably excerpt that long-form sequence at Music for the Winter Solstice, and he’ll definitely enjoy his reunion with Shaw, the Pulitzer Prize–winning singer and violinist—and former Music on Main composer in residence—who contributed to his 2014 album, The Ambassador.
“The thing that I admire the most about Caroline—and I think I’m not unique in this observation—is that she is a deeply honest musician and composer,” he says. “Every aspect of her musicianship feels completely without pretence, whether it’s her singing, her violin-playing, or the music that she writes. I admire so much the fact that she is marching to her own beat.…There’s very little distance between the way I experience her as a human being—which is as someone who’s just full of light and an incredible central kindness—and the way I experience her music.”
The thought of sharing a Vancouver stage with Shaw clearly makes Kahane’s spirit bright, and their collaboration will likely lift and illuminate listeners as well.
Music on Main presents Music for the Winter Solstice at Heritage Hall next Wednesday and Thursday (December 11 and 12).