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Orinoco Sketches is a song cycle, a genre favored by Kahane. The texts are “adapted with great liberty” from the diary of Hannelore Kahane, the composer’s grandmother, who died last year. They describe her journey from Hitler’s Germany to Havana, and ultimately to Los Angeles, where she lived much of her life. (One of her sons is the pianist/conductor Jeffrey Kahane, Music Director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and father of Gabriel Kahane.)

The first movement song suggests popular music of the 1930s, a beguine or Cuban bolero redolent in its lazy, descending sway of the tropics and ocean liner dance bands. The ensemble introduction and interludes fragment the song elements through colorful pointillism and flurries of riffs, ending with an ecstatically hopeful arrival in Havana that crashes – “slightly manic” – directly into the next movement.

That movement is at first pure rhythm, a three-voice canon for temple blocks, castanets, and tom-toms. Kahane adds pizzicato string chords, like crisp guitar punctuation, and evokes big bands with the winds. The song is a reflective, but metrically playful, reverie in the style of the new generation of Broadway composers.

At the end of the movement, the rhythm develops into a “shout-out to the Ligeti Piano Concerto” over a pedal tone in the string bass that extends well into the third movement. That is a bluesy instrumental soundscape that picks up motives from the previous song and shifts quickly through various moods like a film noir score. It accumulates tremendous energy before flickering out, again dropping immediately into the following movement.

The finale is basically a light patter song over quintuplet guitar arpeggios. But it grows into increasingly urgent reflection, with an allusion to Kristalnacht and World War II and a questioning final verse that connects to current events: “How do you calculate a California sun against a war that’s only in the papers… Do you feel it at all?” At the end there is only the rustling guitar, fading to black.

— John Henken