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Kahane grew up in West Los Angeles, and began studying piano at age five, and at age 10 began learning to play the guitar. For the next few years, he split his time between his piano studies and playing folk and rock music on the guitar. At age 14, he was accepted as a scholarship pupil by the Polish-born pianist Jakob Gimpel. "I was completely transformed by the contact with him", Kahane said. "There was something that I got from Brahms and Beethoven and Bach that I couldn't live without. And I wanted to make a contribution to keeping it vital and alive."
After his sophomore year of high school, Kahane entered the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He studied piano and conducting, and graduated in 1977. While in San Francisco, he played keyboard instruments in the San Francisco Symphony, explored jazz, and played in the pit for a touring Broadway musical.
Kahane and his wife, Martha, a clinical psychologist in private practice and an avid choral singer, currently divide their time between their homes in Denver, Colorado, and Santa Rosa, California. They have two adult children: Gabriel Kahane, a composer, pianist, and singer living in Brooklyn; and Annie, who attends Northwestern University.
At the age of 24, Kahane entered the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1981 and won fourth place. "I was amazed just to get in", Kahane said. "By the end, I was in an altered state. It really changed my life."[this quote needs a citation] Kahane received additional exposure because PBS broadcast the competition's finals round. Two years later, he won the Grand Prize in the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in Israel.
Kahane made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1983 at an Arthur Rubinstein Tribute Concert, and his London debut in 1985. In 1983 he won an Avery Fisher Career Grant, and in 1987 the first Andrew Wolf Chamber Music Award.
He has made numerous solo appearances in recital and with major orchestras around the world, including New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Rotterdam Philharmonic, Israel Philharmonic and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. In addition, he has become a favored recital accompanist for Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, Joshua Bell, and Thomas Quasthoff, and he often appears with leading chamber ensembles such as the Emerson String Quartet.
In the summer of 2003 Kahane performed all five Beethoven piano concertos with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra over two consecutive nights at the Hollywood Bowl. He repeated the cycle at Ravinia with the Chicago Symphony in the summer of 2004.
In 1991, Kahane co-founded the Gardner Chamber Orchestra at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, an ensemble of outstanding students and recent graduates of the major schools of music in the Boston area. He served as artistic director and conductor from 1991 to 1995.
In 1995, Kahane became music director of the Santa Rosa Symphony. He held the post until the end of the 2005–06 season, after which he was given the title of Conductor Laureate.
Under Kahane's leadership, the subscriber base increased almost twofold and artistic standards improved. "My tenure with the Santa Rosa Symphony has been the most fulfilling and exciting years of my musical life", Kahane said. "As I move forward, I know that nothing I ever do will mean more to me than the privilege of working with these amazing and dedicated musicians and making music with them for this exceptionally passionate and committed audience."
According to critic David Mermelstein:
Kahane's taste in new music doesn't appeal to everyone. Some critics find his idea of "modern" too conservative, and LACO's older subscribers have been known to grumble about even "safe" choices. Of course, pleasing everyone all the time isn't music making; it's pandering. On balance, Kahane does a laudable job of giving concert goers a healthy mix of the familiar and the slightly daring. His ability to land major soloists, however, is beyond reproach. Such celebrated performers as Hilary Hahn, Thomas Quasthoff, Lang Lang, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and Daniel Hope have appeared with LACO in recent years, and next season promises first appearances by Cho-Liang Lin and Peter Serkin.
But Kahane's achievement at LACO has nothing to do with enriching the musical canon or lassoing big names. It is instead the story of a modest musician who through patience and perhaps a little guile restored dignity to a group of dispirited players. He made them feel their music making mattered, and now others do, too. "We're certainly not the only place in America where musicians are happy", says the conductor, "but the combination of that attitude with this level of playing is very rare."
Kahane became music director of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra in 2005. His initial contract was for three years. In 2008, Kahane extended his Colorado Symphony contract through 2012. However, in July 2008, Kahane announced his resignation from the orchestra at the end of the 2009–10 season. Kahane said that severe hypertension in 2007, which caused him to cancel several weeks of concerts in both Colorado and Los Angeles, led to his decision to concentrate more on his solo piano career:
I had a real scare. That forced me to really stop and take a look at my life and say, "You know what? You can't do everything." I don't think I underestimated the job. I think I overestimated myself, not in my abilities but just being in a body and turning 50."
Kahane has been a guest conductor with many prominent orchestras, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Kansas City Symphony, St. Louis Symphony, Toronto Symphony, Detroit Symphony, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.
Jeffrey Kahane founded the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's Family Concert series, and he is personally involved in the orchestra's Meet the Music program, which serves approximately 2,700 Los Angeles elementary school students annually.
"The thing I myself am most proud of", Kahane said in 2004, "is that in the nine years that I've been music director between the two orchestras [Los Angeles and Santa Rosa], with two exceptions, I have conducted every single children's concert, youth concert, family concert and neighborhood concert that either of those two orchestras has done."