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Jonathan LESHNOFF (b 1973)
Piano Concerto (2019) [25:22]
Symphony No. 3 (2015) [34:56]
Joyce Yang (piano)
Stephen Powell (baritone)
Kansas City Symphony/Michael Stern
rec. live 20-22 May 2016 (symphony), 22-24 November 2019 (concerto), Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, USA
Texts included

I first encountered the music of Jonathan Leshnoff in 2020 when I reviewed a disc, also issued by Reference, by Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony. The main work was Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony but even in that company Leshnoff’s short and highly entertaining Double Concerto for Clarinet and Bassoon made a very strong impression. I was delighted, therefore, when a new disc, devoted entirely to his music, arrived with me for review.

The Piano Concerto was written for Joyce Yang and is dedicated to her. The Kansas City Symphony is one of four orchestras that co-commissioned the score and I think I’m right in saying that the present recording derives from the world premiere performances. The concerto is cast in four movements. The first, marked Fast, opens brightly with the piano heard against a light accompaniment. From the opening material a theme grows organically and is first heard at 0:26; this will be an important theme in the concerto and it’s the thematic foundation of the first movement. This movement features a good deal of busy energetic writing for both the soloist and the orchestra; indeed, one has the impression that the soloist barely pauses for breath throughout the movement’s course. However, Leshnoff has more up his sleeve than agile music: there are some lyrical episodes, and a more relaxed and very attractive idea is announced by the piano at around 3:00. It’s not long, though, before the driving, propulsive music returns, the soloist darting all over the keyboard. There’s a cadenza (6:33 - 8:24) which starts powerfully before moving into pensive mode. Emerging from the cadenza, there’s a reminder of the light-footed opening before the movement works towards a loud, slightly abrupt conclusion.

The slow movement bears the title ‘Neshama’. Leshnoff explains that Jewish mysticism is a frequent source of inspiration for him. The title derives from the Jewish mystical concept that a soul has five levels, the third of which is ‘Neshama’, the Hebrew word for ‘breathing soul’. The movement opens with a long, reflective and quiet passage. The solo part is thoughtful and peaceful and all the music is characterised by lovely melodic lines. Eventually, a noble climax is attained after which Leshnoff returns to the pensive mood in which he began. This time, however, the music is somewhat stronger in its tone of voice, the orchestra accompaniment more richly hued. This is a beautiful movement.

There follows a very brief scherzo which is witty and agile. The composer describes the finale as “kinetic and propulsive”. This is extrovert music; as in the first movement, the solo part is hyper-active, but always to good purpose. Eventually (4:44), the brass section brings back the principal theme from the first movement and this material provides an affirmative conclusion to the concerto.

This is an excellent concerto. It’s thoroughly entertaining, though in saying that I don’t want to give the impression that the music is in any way superficial. Such is not the case; the work is inventive and very accessible and in the second movement depths of feeling are plumbed. Leshnoff gives his soloist every opportunity to shine, both in terms of overt virtuosity and also in terms of lyrical episodes. The orchestral accompaniment is full of interest and incident and complements the solo part most effectively. Joyce Yang and the Kansas City Symphony deliver a superb performance, full of sparkle and assurance.

The Third Symphony is a very different proposition: as Leshnoff explains in the booklet, it “explores America’s participation in world history and its relationship to Kansas City”. As a non-resident of the USA, I was unaware until I read the booklet that Kansas City is home to the only World War I museum in America. Jonathan Leshnoff decided he wanted to write a work which could be premiered close to the centenary of the USA joining in World War I in 1917. He hit upon the idea of using as a sung text some of the letters housed in the museum which had been written by American servicemen to loved ones back home. Eventually, he selected letters by two servicemen who made it home after the conflict. One was written in January 1919 by Dr Charles Irons to his wife. Irons, a Chicagoan dentist, served with the American Expeditionary Forces in Siberia during the Russian civil war. The other letter was written in June 1918 by Lieutenant James Kellogg Burnham Hockaday (1896 – 1996). Lt. Hockaday, a native of Kansas City, wrote the letter in question to his mother. After the war, he lived the rest of his life in Kansas City and, in fact, he and his wife became regulars at concerts by the Kansas City Symphony and its predecessor orchestra, the Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra. The booklet includes a lovely tribute to Lt. Hockaday written at the time of the symphony’s premiere by his daughter, Laura Rollins Hockaday. By an amazing coincidence, unknown to Leshnoff while he was writing the symphony, a member of the Hockaday family is a current member of the Board of the Kansas City Symphony. Lt. Hockaday’s picture in wartime uniform is used in the artwork on the cover of the booklet.

The symphony is cast in three movements, the first two of which are purely instrumental. The first, marked Slow, begins with an extended passage for strings, the tone of which is grave and nostalgic. From 4:30 the rest of the orchestra contributes more and more; the music grows significantly in volume and power. Leshnoff wracks up the tension incrementally until at 7:05, when the movement’s climax arrives, we hear an anvil being struck on the left-hand side of the orchestra. This is answered by another anvil from the other side. Their dull, metallic sound adds an unusual menace to the texture. Notwithstanding all the tension that has characterised the movement, the short coda is quiet and calm. The second movement bears the title ‘Gevurah’, the Hebrew word for ‘strength’ and has the additional marking ‘with burning intensity’. The composer describes this as “thirteen minutes of angst and tension” as he depicts war and battle. The music is predominantly fast and often loud. Even on the occasions when the dynamic level falls away there’s still urgency in the music. The KSO plays this dynamic and eventful music very incisively. Their playing is vividly caught by the microphones. As I listened, though, the thought crossed my mind that maybe the movement is just a little on the long side. At 11:07, at the height of the tumult, one of the anvils reappears, capping the climax. Then, all of a sudden, at 11;50 the rest of the orchestra falls into stunned silence and all that is left is the sound of high violins, slowly descending. A brief, hushed coda, played by the string section, leads without a break into the third movement, which is marked Calm.

Now we hear the two letters sung by baritone Stephen Powell. Lt. Hockaday’s words, written “somewhere in England” are heard first. The music is gentle and lyrical and Powell sings the grateful vocal line marvellously. He’s an ideal choice for this assignment: his voice is firm and very well focussed. His diction is crystal clear and his tone is lovely; furthermore, the tone of his voice is evenly produced throughout his vocal compass. It becomes clear later in the movement that the top of his voice is excellently produced. He sings eloquently and seems perfectly suited to the music. Lt Hockaday’s words are very moving, especially because Leshnoff sets them in so restrained a manner. Dr Irons’ words are even more intense in feeling – they are, after all, written to his wife – and, rightly, Leshnoff sets them to music that is somewhat more ardent. The setting builds to a powerful climax after which we hear Irons’ final thought: “Should the God of all call upon me…and I never see you again, know that I died with your name upon my lips…” Thankfully, there’s no hint of sentimentality here. Instead, Leshnoff sets these intensely moving words to quiet, dignified music and his tasteful restraint makes the setting all the more affecting. The work ends with a very quiet orchestral coda; thank heavens, there’s no applause to break the spell.

Jonathan Leshnoff’s Third Symphony is a fine, eloquent work and I admired it very much. He could scarcely have wished for better advocacy than is provided by these performers.

Both recordings have been made by Soundmirror Inc. Over the years I’ve come to associate the firm with high quality sound and this disc offers two fine examples of their work. Both performances have been recorded by Dirk Sobotka in clear, vivid sound that has genuine presence and impact and which effortlessly deals with a wide dynamic range. I listened to the stereo layer of this hybrid SACD and obtained excellent results. The documentation is excellent: the composer introduces both scores very well.

This is a significant release and it has increased my admiration for the music of Jonathan Leshnoff. He writes excellent and very accessible music and this SACD should further enhance his reputation.

John Quinn

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