That this blogger is a fan of the Ambassador album is no secret. That this blogger was well pleased with the piece in its most fully-realized version will be no surprise.
By rights, this staged edition was the true form of the piece, so that the CD/album/audio-download versions should perhaps be labeled "Songs From The Ambassador." By equal rights, that recorded version is complete and laudable in itself. And, as it will continue to exist through the myriad future days on which the full version is unavailable, it will continue to "be" The Ambassador for all practical purposes. Which is fine: it is a beautiful thing in its own right, and will remain so.
The relationship between the recorded Ambassador and the staged Ambassador is much like that between an excellent wine and a "reserve" version of the same excellent wine, the Reserve not only adding complexity but also bringing clarity to bear, its workings and structures both more multiform and more plainly limned.
Directed by John Tiffany with a set design by Christine Jones, The Ambassador plays out amid vast stacks of books, emulating the high rises and hills that are the topography of Los Angeles and the catalyst of many of Kahane's songs. Scattered through the towering verticals are the musicians' spaces and smaller creations such as a model of the Bonaventure hotel constructed largely of film canisters, or a version of the Capitol Records building made of old slide carousels. [See Christopher Hawthorne's photos, infra.]
The performance is, in fact, something of a Cavalcade of Vanishing Media, its transitional segments incorporating reel-to-reel tape, a small audio cassette boombox, the aforementioned carousel slide projector, handwritten correspondence, and VHS videotape, among other archaisms.
All save one* of the songs from The Ambassador album are included in the stage version, as are three of the additional Kahane songs from the iTunes Haircuts and Airports EP, Jerome Kern's "People Who Live on the Hill" (also on the EP), and the otherwise unreleased "Pauline Gibling Schindler". "Bonaventure Hotel", from the EP, serves as prelude, with Kahane moving a cutout of himself up and up to the peak of the landmark hostelry, all the while spinning out references to themes that will recur in the later songs. With some variation in the midsection, the essential arc of the album is maintained from the entry point of "Black Garden" through the escape hatch of "Union Station," with sudden death on a sunny day at the "Empire Liquor Mart" at its heart.
In addition to the songwriter on piano, other keyboards and (far an affecting "Ambassador Hotel") acoustic guitar, the musicians include Rob Moose (electric guitars) and Casey Foubert (bass)—both core participants on the album—Alex Sopp (keyboards, flute, and vocals), Ted Poor (drums), and a string trio of Laura Lutzke, Nathan Schram and Andrea Lee. The musicians are also players in the implicit drama of the piece, particularly in an intricate dance of arms, hands and fingers accompanying "Empire Liquor Mart," and slowly laying down their instruments and themselves for the closing tableau of "Union Station". (The memorable final image is of Kahane on his knees among the musicians gazing into a glowing book.)
The Ambassador is personal, not encyclopedic, and it is lovely and it is sad. And having come and gone, this version of it has become another piece of the vanished Los Angeles of which it sings.**
* The omitted song is the zany post-nuclear picnic rom-com "Griffith Park" which, with its Wilson-via- Nilsson harmonies, is the closest anything in The Ambassador comes to Southern California Pop. As he passed through the post-show discussion, Gabriel Kahane allowed as how architecture and books were far larger influences than prior music in his vision of Los Angeles. To the extent the local music does play in, he observed, émigré Europeans such as Schoenberg and Stravinsky loomed largest.
** With only two performances here (half as many as it received in Brooklyn this past December), too few actual Angelenos saw it. Someone should work to bring it back, if only for a full week or two. In subject and in scale, The Ambassador would be a more or less perfect fit for the Mark Taper Forum downtown at the Music Center. Someone get on that, please.
Photos above taken, under questionable and ill-illumed conditions, and thereafter fiddled about with, by the blogger. Superior photos below. The blogger attended the performance on Saturday, February 28, as a paying customer.
Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, who contributed valuable liner notes to the Ambassador album, was on hand for a post-performance chat, and he procured and shared, on Twitter, some fine onstage photos.
I was also lucky enough during the onstage talk after to get a closeup look at the set, incl its mini Bonaventure pic.twitter.com/ojBBZ3NpiM— ChristopherHawthorne (@HawthorneLAT) March 1, 2015
And Capitol Records: pic.twitter.com/gVBfO7SfJY— ChristopherHawthorne (@HawthorneLAT) March 1, 2015
Gabriel Kahane, model citizen:
[UPDATE 030415 10:00 PST] Gabriel Kahane kindly forwarded to me some photos from the North Carolina premiere run of The Ambassador. Here are two of them, both by Ben Cohen:
I could be mistaken, but I believe Mr. Kahane wore shoes on Saturday evening. It was [comparatively] cold and wet in Los Angeles that night.