Jonathan Leshnoff: An Interview and Portrait of America’s next great composer
By Lee Denham
Twenty-first century classical composers are a rare breed – and even rarer are those who have enjoyed as much popular acclaim as Jonathan Leshnoff, a comparative youngster, born in 1973, whose works have already been taken up by many orchestras in his native USA with much success – the New York Times called him “a leader in contemporary American lyricism” whose music has been described by the American Record Guide as “lyrical, virtuosic, tender, and passionate all at once”. To coincide the new release on Reference Recordings of his Piano Concerto premiered last year, coupled with his Third Symphony, premiered in 2016, Jonathan Leshnoff spoke to MusicWeb International about the particular challenges of being a classical composer in the twenty-first century.
Our conversations were very much in keeping with modern times – via Zoom, with Jonathan at his home in Baltimore just north of Washington DC in the US, and me at my home in North London in the UK. Similarly, within the text below are links to Record Companies YouTube channels, which I hope will allow you, the reader, to listen, as and when they are mentioned in the narrative, to some of Jonathan Leshnoff’s works which have already been recorded.
I began by asking about Jonathan’s early life. He was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey; his mother was an artist and his father an engineer. What were the events that triggered his interest in serious music and led to him becoming a composer?
JL: Well, I like to say that music found me, not that I found music! When I was young, I was very artistic and creative, so I guess I was always moving in that direction, but one of my very earliest memories, probably when I was no more than 3 years old, was watching my father play one of his LPs on his record player. I remember hearing the needle hit the vinyl and the crackle that seems to accompany the beginning of every record in those days, until the music started – it was the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and I remember being both mesmerised as well as terrified at the same time. It was a visceral reaction – I felt the soundwaves go up through my legs! This experience was almost kind of prophetic, as I now view Beethoven as being my greatest teacher, the greatest master of his craft – in my opinion, that is. I mean, he could do anything! The opening to his 5th Symphony is just a major third and yet it sounds cataclysmic! His craft of using that interval to construct the symphony is astounding. He was so forward- looking – consider the Große Fuge, for example, which Igor Stravinsky described as "an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever", so I suppose that early incident sowed the seeds. As I grew older, I studied the violin and was aiming to go into the conservatoire to study it further, but I was always improvising, even when playing the greatest music like the Bach Partitas, adding notes that weren’t there. But the key point was as a teenager, when I was in the Tanglewood Youth programme; as part of my studies, I went to see the Boston Symphony and got a seat really close to the orchestra, who were playing Schumann’s Fourth Symphony that night. It was something about being so close to the orchestra which made me realise that composing was what I wanted to do – to be connected to this expression, this closeness with the arts and that was when I decided that I was going to ‘retire’ from the violin and enter college to study composition.
LD: So who would you say are your favourite composers and have any in particular influenced your own compositions ?
JL: Well, we have mentioned Beethoven, but definitely Stravinsky, too, especially The Firebird and Petrushka.
LD: Yes, personally, I definitely hear a lot of Shrovetide Fair, in your music Jonathan.
JL: Yes, it’s there – and Bartok, as well as Copland.
LD: Mainly twentieth century?
JL: Yes, absolutely – outside of the Second Viennese School, although I do like Berg, especially the composer of Wozzeck.
LD: So, how do you compose?
JL: When I start, I try to visualise in my mind’s ear the whole piece that I want to write. So, for example, if it is going to be a twenty-minute work, I will decide that I want the piece to climax in the seventeenth minute – and then I have to devise a plan, such as: do I want a slow decline to the end, or something more uplifting? Or, do I want the build-up to that climax to be over the five minutes before, or is it going to be a slow build-up to that point from the first bar? I need to be able to get a conceptual handle on the whole work, in order to answer the question of ’what chord do I want for that seventeenth minute climax?’ Once I know where I am going, I can then figure out the melodies and harmonies, etc. I believe it is called the ‘deductive method’, of kind of working backwards to find the answers. It helps, too, that my ideas come orchestrated. So, as the composition takes shape, I may look back and revise and fine-tune some of it. I may look at a climax and think wouldn’t be good to have the trumpets ringing out here, or if the strings should be supporting it, but it only starts to really come together once I get a picture of the whole thing in my head.
LD: You have stated that writing a symphony is like a “rite of passage for a composer” – could you expand upon that ?
JD: I think a symphony (and a string quartet too) is where a composer is most honest, because there is nothing coming between their artistic thoughts and the music, such as a soloist, or a form (like a trio, or a minuet), or an instruction to make it “an eight-minute opener”, or “make it upbeat to commemorate this”. With a symphony, the composer can say what they have to say in the purest, unfiltered form. Whenever I compose a symphony, I view it as a sacred act in the sense that I know that I am able to say something in such a way that nobody is going to bother me in a direct way. I do feel that with the vast majority of composers, even major ones, with the exception of Shostakovich, Brahms – although he took many years! – and possibly Prokofiev and Walton, their first symphonies are really a first attempt at the form and not their most tightly constructed work and I feel the same way about my own first symphony, in the sense that it was my first time working with the symphonic form.
The first of Jonathan’s four symphonies lasts 21 minutes and is in five movements played without a break. Premiered in 2004 and subtitled “Forgotten chants and refrains”, it incorporates into its musical fabric Gregorian Chant, plus quotations from fifteenth and seventeenth century Christian and Jewish religious music. Its orchestration - a standard symphony orchestra, augmented by harp, piano, vibraphone, hand bells, sleigh bells and tubular bells -adds up to an experience which makes it as different from any other composer’s first symphony as you can make it (and is available on Naxos: 8.559670), but its serene closing pages are also very rewarding, too (Youtube).
LD: Your own first symphony was premiered as the first half of a concert concluding with Beethoven’s Ninth – do you think it’s a good idea for a young composer to have their first attempt at this form paired with such an iconic work?
JD: Well, it’s been a bit of an ongoing blessing, as well as a curse for me, for while the Beethoven is always a good ‘draw’ on the concert programme for an audience, I seem always to be paired with it.
Both my Second Violin Concerto as well as my Double Concerto for Clarinet and Bassoon - (recorded last year by Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony on Reference Recordings) - were the first half of the program which was followed by Beethoven’s Ninth. That said, for the first time as a young composer, being up against Beethoven, I was terrified, but coming back to a composer’s first symphony, I was only around thirty when I wrote mine and I can see now that there are things in the music that are a bit extravagant, such as my harmonies (which were a bit edgier than they are now), as well as the very decorative accompaniment style. I have learned to tighten my control with both harmony and melody since then, so now I can state my ideas in more concise terms.
LD: It was premiered by the conductor Michael Stern, a great friend and collaborator of yours – it must be so important for a young composer, such as you were then, to have a friend like that.
JL: Oh absolutely! Let me tell you about when we met. It was a while ago now, when I was in my mid-twenties, just starting out, and I received a commission from the Twentieth Century Consort [now Twenty-First Century Consort], an ensemble based in Washington DC who specialise in contemporary music. Many of the members of the ensemble back then were members of the National Symphony, but I made it my mission to ask as many of them as I dared if I could compose something for them and eventually I ended up writing a trio for violin, cello and piano. Now the violinist, Charles Whetherbee, a most distinguished player, was rather taken by my music and as Concertmaster of the Columbus Symphony, he asked if I could compose a short piece for solo violin and strings for them, which I did and it went really well. Now it just so happens that this concert master went to Curtis with Michael Stern and when Michael came to Columbus to conduct the symphony orchestra, they met up and Michael was played a CD of one of my pieces – Charles just put it into the car CD player and Michael was forced to listen to it - and apparently, Michael really liked it, so next thing I know, Michael was in Baltimore to conduct the Symphony and we arranged a time to meet up for coffee. At the end of the meeting, Michael asked me to send him some of works to conduct. I thought he was just being polite, so of course I didn’t, but then I received a call from his office basically saying “Mr Stern is waiting for his material...” - and that was the beginning of a very special friendship, as well as artistic collaboration.
LD: There’s a message in there, too, for all aspiring composers, I guess?
JL: Definitely! There are a lot of knock-backs in this game – I could tell you of so many occasions when I have travelled for hours just to shake someone’s hand and that was all that happened; the possible opportunity never materialized. But as Abraham Lincoln said: 'The best way to predict the future is to create it,' You, as a young composer, need to go for everything – but be realistic, because not everything will work every time.
If the First Symphony was an audacious start for a young composer, the Second Symphony, subtitled ‘Innerspace’, was even more daring, not least in ending with 83 seconds of silence written into the score. This symphony was commissioned and premiered by another of Jonathan Leshnoff’s champions, the distinguished conductor Robert Spano, who first encountered the composer’s music in 2011 when the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra fell ill and Maestro Spano was called upon at the eleventh hour to premiere Leshnoff’s Flute Concerto; he had to learn the entire composition on the plane journey over, before rehearsing the orchestra the following morning and then conducting the piece in concert in the afternoon (much to the composer’s grateful amazement). The Second Symphony was then subsequently commissioned by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and their principal conductor Robert Spano, and was premiered by them in 2014, a performance that was recorded and released by the orchestra’s own label (ASO 1008). ‘Innerspace’ explores Jonathan’s fascination with Jewish mysticism, a common source of inspiration to him, so I asked him, in his capacity as professor of music at Towson University, Maryland, what his thoughts were on why composers were so inspired by religion, even those (such as Beethoven and Verdi) who were non-believers, or Mahler who as a Jewish composer, was able to write such blazing music about the Resurrection.
JL: Personally, I think there is a close kinship between music and spirituality– after all, music is very often part of religious ceremonies. But neither has any kind of tangibility. Yes, there is the physical act of playing an instrument, as there is the physical act of religious rituals, but what moves us is the sound that we cannot see and that sound affects us in the most profound way. Just as with religion and spirituality – we cannot see our God or heaven, but the thought also has the potential to profoundly move us. So in my view there is a natural kinship between the two, which is why composers have always been inspired by it.
If the Second Symphony has bold ambitions to describe a benevolent and omnipresent God, its musical gestures seem to me to be firmly rooted within the American symphonic canon. The opening fanfares seemingly pay homage to Copland, Bernstein and Hanson, while the busy perpetuum mobile of the second and fourth movements make a definite nod to John Adams. If the final movement of silence likewise seems to have been influenced by John Cage’s 4’33’’, the composer avoids the charge often levelled at Cage, by more cynically minded listeners, of the emperor’s new clothes, by the sincerity of the music leading up to that moment; it is as if the composer is saying that mere music is not enough any more to describe a God who is everywhere and that it is only in silent contemplation that we truly hear Him speaking (Youtube).
With all those apparent influences I then asked Jonathan if he thought his symphony was especially ‘American’.
JL: It wasn’t a conscious effort to be so, I have to say – but I can hear it now. Certainly, the expanse and boldness of Copland’s scores, for example, ended up in my symphony. Looking back on it, I think it’s my longest symphony and certainly it is the hardest to play – I have no mercy on the players - but then, I hadn’t written a symphony for ten years and it had been brewing within me for a long time - and then suddenly I had at my disposal/mercy a great orchestra and conductor and look what happened! However, I think with my second symphony, I was also beginning to find my ‘groove’ inasmuch as rather than feeling as if was part of a long-line of [American] composers and being inspired by that tradition, I was instead being moved to compose by the ideas within Jewish mysticism, which in turn reflects my own heritage. The ‘Innerspace’ of that symphony’s title, for example, refers to the Jewish mystical concept of knowing how and why you are at this stage in your life’s journey. For example, most people reading this would be sitting down in a building. At a previous point in time, somebody must have built the building, whereas before that there would have been an architect designing it, a town planner commissioning it and ultimately the will of the town planner to even have a building in the first place. This regressive introspection that takes humanity to its Creator is the musical motivation behind ‘Innerspace’ and why when retracing our steps, eventually we end up at the absolute beginning where there is nothing – consider the first lines of the Bible: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty….’ It was empty – not even the concept of “space” was there yet. My second symphony ends with silence – the ‘nothing’, because it is that “nothingness” that is the basis of all existence. Of course, my “silent” fifth movement was influenced by John Cage, but whereas he was saying in 4’33’’ that if you listen, music is everywhere, instead I’m saying that in the beginning there was absolutely nothing (i.e. silence in music) and that we have arrived at this particular point in our lives only because God, at some previous point in the long-distant past, willed it to be so.
The Fourth Symphony continues with the theme of Jewish mysticism, being subtitled, “Heichalos”, which refers to an ancient text which explores spiritual and ethical questions about being Jewish. However, its genesis was the result of something arguably far more universal: a commission from the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, who approached the composer to write something commemorating the ‘Violins of Hope’. Their website explains:
“[The] Violins of Hope is a project of concerts based on a private collection of violins, violas and cellos all collected since the end of World War 2. All instruments belonged to Jews before and during the war. Many were donated by or bought from survivors; some arrived through family members and many simply carry Stars of David as a decoration and an identity tag declaring: ‘we were played by proud klezmorim. All instruments have a common denominator: they had to do with the war. To be more specific, they had to do with the holocaust - death or survival. And hope.
Many of the instruments were often cheap, or in poor condition, but all have been afforded a make-over by a master instrument-builder and form part of a collection, each with its own individual story. There are over 60 instruments now and when 32 were displayed in Nashville in March 2018, as part of that city’s remembrance of the atrocities of World War 2, they also joined up with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra in their live performance of the premiere of Leshnoff’s Fourth Symphony, which was recorded and released by Naxos Classics (Naxos 8.559809). This taut and powerful two movement symphony may last a mere 22 minutes, but such is its profundity of utterance and powerful message, that it packs an emotional punch befitting a work considerably longer. In spite of its subtitle, the circumstances of its creation do make it a little difficult to separate it from the horrors the instruments of the Violins of Hope must have witnessed. The terror and despair of Its opening chords leads into a first movement of pulsating anxiety, before the second movement, a Mahlerian adagio, starts in seemingly wistful memory of those lost, before gradually building up to a climax of noble restraint and grandeur, until the whole thing ends in gentle forgiveness, Maher-like smiling through the tears. As with any great work, it transcends its time and speaks with equal relevance even today, when the entire world is suffering and reeling from the horror of a disease which leads death and misery in its wake, from which only now there’s starting to be a glimmer of hope ….”
The recording of the premiere, performed by the Nashville Symphony clearly inspired by the occasion under their conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, is extremely fine and it does not give me any pleasure to report that four other concert performances of the piece had to be cancelled during the 2020/21 season due to the Covid pandemic. I sincerely hope that they are rescheduled, for, as I told Jonathan, this is, in my opinion, one of the finest symphonies to have been written for many decades (Youtube).
JL: Thank you. I think with my fourth symphony I have really hit my stride, both spiritually and in the content of my craft as a composer, in the sense that I feel that I am able to say what I mean. For example, the crashing opening chords which are all that I need to express what I want to convey to the listener, are as stark and as sparce as can be, while in the long Adagio of the final movement, I am able to spin out a melody that is able to stand on its own without any excesses. The longest note in the final movement is in fact an eighth whole note (semibreve quaver) and I feel that it takes a lot of guts on the part of a composer to present long notes to the listener and expect them to understand exactly what the underlying message being conveyed is. Compare this to the very florid version of myself in the first symphony (remember, it contained not just Jewish mystical ideas, but also Christian and Islamic too, so I was all over the place spiritually too!), but now I feel I am beginning to get a handle on things, to become more confident and succinct – or, as my students like to say, Lesh is more!
The Third Symphony is the exception (so far) in not being directly influenced by Jewish mysticism and was instead composed in memory of another war, this time World War 1 (Youtube). Commissioned by the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra and their principal conductor, Michael Stern, it received its premiere on April 16 2016, ninety-nine years to the day after the USA entered that war – and the only museum of that conflict in the States just happens to be in Kansas City. A week later, a recording was made by Reference Recordings (FR-739), which was released last year to much acclaim. This three-movement work begins with a lament, the music intense and yearning, as if in memoriam for the senseless loss of life of that conflict, before the violent central movement explodes into life depicting the brutality of battles. When I first heard this work, I was somewhat wrong-footed at the start of the third and final movement which features a solo baritone; perhaps I was thinking of something similar to the endings of other war symphonies such as Vaughan Williams’ Sixth or Honegger’s Third, one ending in apparent annihilation, the other with a brief coda of hope with birdsong emerging from the smouldering ruins. Instead, Jonathan sets to music two letters home from men on the frontline, one to his mother musing at how suddenly his life has been changed by being stationed overseas in conflict, the other from an older man writing a love letter to his wife.
LD: These letters are housed in the National World War I Museum in Kansas – what was it like to be reading those personal letters from many years ago and why did you chose two that were conspicuous in not directly mentioning war or conflict?
JL: it was an enormous privilege, as well as intensely moving – a bit like reading the letters of Mozart and Beethoven; you become privy to a side of people’s lives that you would otherwise never see or know about. However, I also remember reading a group of letters donated to the museum by one family where a soldier was writing home to his parents, telling them about the hardship and deprivations he was experiencing, as well as the horrors of various battles. I remember finishing the penultimate letter and turning the page expecting to read the final one explaining he was due to come home and instead being confronted instead by one from the US Government, the Army Office, blankly stating: ‘Dear Mr and Mrs X, we regret to inform you of the passing of your son ….’. He was only 19. I knew at that point as both a son, as well as a father, that this was something I couldn’t possibly set to music. Instead, I feel that when I reach the final movement of my third symphony that all the grief and horror of war has already been stated in the previous movements, all with the orchestra alone –, so that in the final movement with the solo baritone, I could then write about ordinary people, caught up in extraordinary events, just writing home about ordinary things…
It was, though, quite extraordinary that I found out after the work was completed that one of the letters I chose for my symphony was by a Lieutenant Hockaday, who not only survived the war, but then regularly attended concerts given by the Kansas City Orchestra who premiered the work and who has a descendent who sits on the board of the orchestra to this day (Irvine O Hockaday) ! To be frank, there were many other letters which I could have used, but…
Overtures & Shorter Works
Like many composers before him, Jonathan also delights in the smaller forms too: the concert overture, or symphonic poem, if you will. Rush (2008) and Starburst (2010) are both examples of this, the latter actually being his most performed work. I asked Jonathan to tell us a little about the piece:
JL: Ah, this is my most well-known opener and was premiered by Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony, plus co-commissioned by Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony and Jesus Amigo and the Orquesta de Extremadura in Spain. When I was composing it, my children told me,”It sounds like stars!” And I suppose it does sound like how I’d imagine the cosmic vortex of clouds and matter would sound– and so it became “Starburst”. It has served me very well.
LD: Would you say It was your “breakout” piece, Jonathan?
JL: Yes, that and the First Violin Concerto. I was very proud of that work at the time and looking back on it, I feel you can hear my mature voice for the first time. It helped that Naxos recorded my First Violin Concerto and it sold very well for them too, plus it helped get my name more well-known, which in turn resulted in phone calls and a couple of commissions as well.
Writing after a performance of the piece in Arts Knoxville, Alan Sherrod wrote:
“…the work has moments of punctuation, moments of flowing rhythm, and moments of sonic surprise that inevitably force the listener into a state of optimistic elation.” In my opinion, it’s ten minutes well spent investigating the work (Youtube).
Jonathan once said it is harder to write shorter works than longer-form compositions, which give a composer “more time to develop, to amplify and present contrast”. I asked him then about the particular challenges of writing a string quartet; I mentioned the example of Shostakovich, whose quartets perhaps showed his ‘private face’ as opposed to the ‘public one’ of his symphonies and wondered if it was always like this for a composer, himself included?
JL: Yes, well Shostakovich sometimes couldn’t say what he wanted to say in his music in case he ended up in Siberia, which isn’t quite such a problem for me! On the contrary, I feel that in string quartets, as with symphonies, nothing gets in the way of what the composer wants to say. By this I mean that I am not constantly worrying that orchestra will constantly drown out a soloist. For example, take my Guitar Concerto – throughout the entire composition process, I needed to be constantly aware that the orchestra cannot play above a certain dynamic level, but with a string quartet, on the other hand, this isn’t a problem. Occasionally, I get asked to compose a piece for specific individuals; for example, my Third String Quartet was commissioned by Harris Miller and his wife, Deborah Kahn, hence its nickname, the ‘Miller-Kahn’, which explores their wonderful relationship together. Clearly the subject matter determines my narrative in the music here, but the way I can express it, via the medium of a quartet, means I feel as if I am directly communicating with the listener.
LD: You’ve written five quartets now?
JL: Four, but the fifth one is in here (pointing to his head). One day the moment may be right to put it to paper…
LD: You mention the challenge of writing concertos for particular instruments, but you have written so many.
JL: Yes, thirteen or fourteen, I think.
The Concerto is the genre which in which Jonathan Leshnoff has been the most prolific – he has written concertos for virtually every instrument of the orchestra. It is actually easier for me to say that he hasn’t (so far) written one for oboe, double bass, trumpet and French horn and for you to assume that he has written one for everything else.
LD: it must almost be an occupational hazard to walk past orchestras these days in case you are grabbed and asked to write another concerto.
JL: (laughing) Yep, for sure …
LD: Any chance of a Triple Concerto for Trumpet, Horn and Double Bass then to attempt to get full house?
JL: I think that will cost someone a lot of money and I would take a lot of convincing. You see, the trick about writing a concerto is to consider what the orchestra does. Let me elaborate: if the function of the concerto is to make the soloist the star, then what does the composer do with the orchestra – the grandiose, time-honoured 80-plus-person ensemble – other than just doing a few mere trite little runs? So in order to make an engaging concerto, the challenge is to make the orchestra come up, confront and challenge to the soloist and to make every instrument in the orchestra feel engaged and feel that they are also doing something important in the musical narrative.
LD: Are there any particular instruments which are more challenging in this respect than others?
JL: Well, for sure, my concerto for guitar proved especially challenging in this respect.
Jonathan Leshnoff’s Guitar Concerto of 2013 has been recorded by Naxos (8.559809) and has all the hallmarks of his later style, which is to say, witty, colourful orchestral colours, as well as wonderful melodies (Youtube). For this writer, if there was an undeniable whiff of Spain in the outer movements (perhaps inevitable with this instrument), the cool and beautiful central movement is as far away from the sun-scorched plains of Iberia that you can make it.
LD: So what were the particular challenges posed by a guitar?
JL: Well, it was both a surprise and a challenge. You see, I don’t play the guitar myself and it’s notoriously difficult to write for the instrument unless you play it – so I had to study very hard before I felt ready to take on this challenge. I actually had to consult with several guitarists, including the
soloists, on whether certain passages were possible. The fingerings on the guitar are nearly impossible to figure out unless you play the instrument. In addition, I had to struggle mightily with balance, so that the orchestra would not drown out the guitar, which it could easily do. You see, every instrument has a few blackout zones where it won’t be heard with an orchestra playing alongside it, but with the guitar you have to be incredibly careful across the whole range. My solution to this was to let the orchestra be more subordinate than usual, to act like a ‘reflecting pool’, listening to what the guitar is doing and reflecting back.
LD: What was the inspiration behind that coolly beautiful central movement?
JL: This movement is subtitled ‘Hod’ which is a Jewish concept meaning humility, the awareness of the one’s smallness in the universe and having an appreciation of others. The music is perhaps ‘coolly’ – to use your word – reflective and I tried to achieve this by reducing the orchestration to just violins, harp and percussion.
LD: It’s a very beautiful passage of music. I noticed with your Clarinet Concerto of 2016 that it is also very ‘reflective’ with its three movements of Adagio-Scherzo-Adagio…
The Clarinet Concerto was a co-commission between the Philadelphia and Santa Barbara Symphony Orchestras and was premiered in 2016 by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, with their principal clarinettist Ricardo Morales as soloist – their performance at the premiere, hauntingly beautiful in the outer-movements, busy and humorous in the central scherzo, was superb and one can only regret that the opportunity wasn’t taken at the time to record it, for it is certainly a work that deserves the widest audience.
JL: Yes, I like to challenge myself with my compositions – remember, I said it was harder to composer music that is slow, because there is little of the busy incidental detail of faster music to distract the listener. I find that being challenged, or to have a problem to solve inspires me to produce my best music. For example, in the ‘busy’ central second movement of my Clarinet Concerto there is a lot of motion and stuff running around, particularly with the solo clarinet – so the orchestra needs to keep up with it, to bounce off ideas, as well as to present textures that the clarinet could, in turn, shine in and reflect. I didn’t want to write something where the orchestra just goes ”oom pah-pah, oom pah- pah” – for me, it needs to be much more interesting for the listener than that.
LD: I couldn’t hear much ‘oom pah-pah’ in your Piano Concerto of 2019, Jonathan.
JL: I hope not, too! My aim in my Piano Concerto was to get away from just letting the orchestra be the accompanist, so in the first movement of that piece you can hear the orchestra swirling around the soloist, as well as commenting and challenging the piano, in addition to ‘buddying-up’ and being with the piano at certain key moments.
LD: I have to say that I, as well as my colleague John Quinn here at MWI, both enjoyed your piano concerto very much indeed as, I hope, our reviews of the live premiere on performance on Reference Recordings made clear (FR-739) – I even managed to persuade another MWI reviewer to listen to it, Ralph Moore, who is famous for not liking anything modern and he thought it was terrific, too. For me, in particular, I would like to talk about the last movement where I just knew instinctively that the first movement’s first subject was going to return and when it does in the coda, the impact is overwhelming for it being taken by the full orchestra, rather than just the piano ….
JL: Thank you – yes, I actually remember composing that moment and thinking that this would be really fun.
LD: Joyce Yang has gone on record to say that this would be the perfect concerto for four hands !
JL: Yes, I was very unsympathetic to the technical challenges Joyce faced, but she is always so cheery about everything; she just figured it out, with a smile. I can really say that the hard piano part was Joyce’s fault! The first time I saw her performing, it was in the Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto (a tremendously difficult piece for the pianist) and I thought to myself “my goodness, it sounds as if she has four hands” - so I wrote her a concerto for four hands!
The four movement Piano Concerto (for two hands!) is indeed a tremendous piece of music – not only does it share the same key as Prokofiev’s Third, but it also shares the same shining brilliance of the earlier work, too. With a haunting second movement adagio, it is worth any reader seeking out, especially if they enjoy the Prokofiev. To my mind, this is the finest piano concerto to have appeared since Ligeti’s in 1986 and truly deserves to be well-known (Youtube).
LD: I noticed that the score of the Piano Concerto notes that the work should last around 22 minutes in performance, but the actual recording was closer to 26 minutes – were you surprised by that?
JL: Not at all – you see, I view my job as a composer to bring a new piece of music into the world, to construct and nurture it until, like a child, it is then able to go off and make its own way in the world. And when that happens, the piece takes on a life of its own independently of me and I love it when performers find layer and nuances in the music that I haven’t thought of. I even love when critics hear things in the music which I didn’t know was there either. You see, any person’s reaction to music is uniquely their own, because we are all, ultimately, unique souls and nothing gives me greater pleasure than hearing a performer bringing something new or different in my own works.
Jonathan Leshnoff must also be one of the very few composers who have written not just one, but two double concertos (three, if you include the tour de force that is the 2011 Concerto for Two Percussionists). The earliest for violin and viola is from 2007 and is a more melancholy and introverted piece by Jonathan’s standards, eschewing the glitter and sparkle of Starburst which is instead replaced by considerable mystery and other-worldliness (Youtube). Indeed, the beautiful opening of the third movement, with piano, cascading harps and celeste, reminded me of Neptune from Holst’s Planets Suite and in the quiet ending of the whole work, which repeats the close of the first movement but this time clothed in the magical orchestration of the third movement, the effect is spell-binding as well as hugely original and moving (it has been recorded on Naxos: 8.559670). I asked Jonathan whether he especially enjoyed writing concertos for two instruments, or…
JL: Well, it is a peculiar and interesting challenge, especially with regards to the function of an orchestra in a concerto, as when you have two soloists, now you have complicated the solo part. In other words, until now, we have talked about the orchestra versus the soloist and how to make the orchestra relevant. However, now that there are two solo instruments, you need to work out what to do with both soloists, so they are both “busy” and “constructive”. I mean, do they work against each other or together? Are they in unison or in counterpoint? Are they in harmony? And then, once you have solved those issues - which takes time – you then have to figure out how to keep the orchestra relevant with not one but two soloists. Remember, some of the orchestral function can be taken over by the second soloist, so this only complicates the function of the orchestra. In my experience, writing double concertos is very tricky.
LD: I think your concerto for violin and viola is a superb piece and was wondering if it must be the only time these two instruments have been used together in a concerto.
I think you have forgotten the Mozart Concertante, but there are also (I
think) a couple by Bruch and maybe Britten
LD: I trust that you fact-checked , if you say there is one by Britten, then I’ll take your word for that, but I was not familiar with it - which isn’t a surprise…, but other than that I’m not sure …. I feel that I was quite heavily influenced by Shostakovich in my Double Concerto for Violin and Viola – I don’t know if you heard that?
LD: It wasn’t as obvious to me as Holst, but I think that says much about me. However, your “other” Double Concerto for Clarinet and Bassoon from 2018 must definitely be the only one for that pair of instruments.
JL: Actually, Strauss wrote one too.
This concerto, witty, colourful, effervescent and melodic was premiered by Manfred Honeck and the star front desk players of the superb Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, plus it was recorded and released by Reference Recordings as a coupling for the same team’s Tchaikovsky Symphony No 4. This recording actually spent some time in the US billboard charts, perhaps courtesy of its high-profile coupling, but nonetheless exciting much enthusiastic comment in its own right (Youtube). It is, in my opinion, a wonderful work that is not dwarfed by its heavyweight neighbour on this recording.
JL: It was an interesting challenge, trying to combine the clarinet, with its seemingly unlimited agility and colours, with the heavier colour of the bassoon, to ensure the latter stood out in the orchestral texture. One of my solutions to this, was to utilise the higher end of the bassoon’s sound, which I personally find rather poignant and which gave me a certain soundworld around which the clarinet could weave. To complement this, I aimed to create ethereal and translucent textures from within the orchestras, using divided strings for example, as a tapestry upon which the two solo instruments could then create their magic. I think Manfred [Honeck], plus Michael [Rusinek] and Nancy [Goeres] did the most marvellous job of realising this.
The final area in which Jonathan Leshnoff has been hugely active is oratorios – in fact, he has composed four of them, although only the final one, Zohar, has been recorded, by Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO 1008). Maestro Spano actually commissioned the composer to write something to be performed at Carnegie Hall for a concert in memory of Robert Shaw who was Toscanini’s chorus master, as well as the conductor of the Atlanta Symphony for many years. Jonathan said at the time: “All I was told was, ‘We’re going to do the Brahms Requiem; can you do a piece that gives the soprano a little bit more to do?” (source: the Atlanta Jewish Times, April 2016). The result was this oratorio, inspired by the ancient spiritual text known as the Zohar, the foundation of Kabbalah, 25 minutes of uplifting and ecstatic music designed to complement the comfort and solace of the Brahms (Youtube). To mark Robert Spano’s final season as Music Director of the Atlanta, a fifth oratorio, The Sacrifice of Isaac, has been commissioned and was scheduled to be premiered in April 2021. I asked Jonathan to tell me more about this new work and if there were any particular challenges in writing about a sacrifice that doesn’t actually happen.
JL: Actually, the biggest challenge with this was how little there is about it in the Bible – only a few lines in fact …
LD: A bit like with Salomé and the beheading of John the Baptist, maybe?
JL: Yes, except I didn’t have Oscar Wilde on hand to help me expand on the story! Instead, I had to go and research other ancient scriptures for further inspiration. This story is so well known, especially as a demonstration of what ‘faith’ is, not just for Jewish people, but also Christians, Muslims and really anyone, at least that is my intent really too. My research found that Jewish Rabbinical commentaries did, in fact, expand upon the story, which is very terse as recounted in the Old Testament. For example, I found in these Rabbinic commentaries that – apparently after God has made the command, Satan appears and taunts Isaac mockingly, saying “your old man” (i.e. Abraham) “has lost the plot”. Likewise, the angels all argue and shout at God, saying that he cannot command such a terrible thing. In the end, there was plenty of drama – Biblical drama - for me to work with.
LD: Personally, I cannot wait to hear how you represent the word of God – I’m thinking that maybe with an organ, or at least the entire trombone section?
JL: Nope, neither – in my work, the word of God is a counter-tenor! Whenever He speaks, I wanted the music to be pure, quiet and intense in order to try and create a kind of mystical experience. It’s like with my previous oratorio, Zohar, that the true spiritual and mystical experience only occurs when the music is at its quietest and we, the listener, are not being distracted. It’s based upon an old Jewish idea that God is always talking to us, but we are too busy (with our cell phones etc.) to hear Him. This is where the idea of meditation comes from, when you are focusing on the breathing, focusing on the nothingness, it brings someone to a new spiritual consciousness. In my oratorio, in order to offer contrast, Abraham is a baritone and Isaac is a tenor.
LD: Did the Caravaggio painting of the same name and housed nearby in the Princeton University Arts Museum, provide any inspiration?
JL: I didn’t know about it until somebody showed it to me when I was just finishing my oratorio. It is, of course, a painting full of its own drama, but I wanted to approach the work purely from the religious-spiritual question. That actual drama in the painting is what I am aiming for in the middle of my own work with the actual “sacrifice”, which posed an interesting challenge to me as a composer for, as you say, it doesn’t happen. However, I can tell you that at the moment leading up to it, the orchestra and chorus are exploding and going crazy, begging Abraham not to do it when, suddenly, the music stops and all the lights go out, save for one spotlight on Isaac, who then sings an ancient Jewish liturgical love song (still sung to this day by many Orthodox Jews on the Sabbath) between the soul and God, where the soul expresses its closeness to God, as well as expressing a desire to return and have a mystical communion with Him. In other words, even though Isaac is about to slaughtered, it is not a gruesome scene, but it is instead a very beautiful and tender one for strings, harp and tenor. At the end, I use some words of the Jewish confession before death and right out of that, the music and action transitions to the angel halting the sacrifice. If you want to find out what happens next though, you’ll need to buy a ticket!
LD: Unlike your previous oratorios, this one is beginning to sound almost quasi-operatic, Jonathan.
JL: It’s true – and that’s the thing, as I feel with this kind of music that the voice has to be in the spotlight. For me, when people sing, there is a special magic that happens and so being ‘operatic’ is the way to go in vocal music - people listen to solos, they listen to the voice, so it cannot be marginalised. Instead, it has to be both melodic and dramatic.
LD: The premiere is/was due to take place this April in 2021?
JL: Yes, but the issues surrounding Covid have, of course, pushed it back.
Coda & Finale
LD: The Covid pandemic has clearly been a terrible experience for everyone, not least for people like yourself who are involved in the performing arts. Do you think it is the biggest challenge you have ever faced so far in your career, Jonathan?
JL: It’s going to be very tough, for not only is it going to take a while for audience levels to return to what they were, but it is going to take time for ensembles to rebuild their finances before they can start being ambitious with their projects, too. I think it is going to take about five years to get back to where we were financially, as well as to get our confidence back, as we are all kind of shell-shocked.
LD: Which of your works are you most proud of?
JL: Hmm – that’s a tough one.
LD: Would “Which of your children do you think turned out best?” be better, Jonathan?
JL: Exactly! Well, I’m not sure about a specific work, but I am proud of specific moments within works where I personally have a challenge, which is unarticulated for anybody else. For example, we mentioned the coda of the Piano Concerto earlier, or the slow movement of my Fourth Symphony and many others. Basically, each composition has a ‘moment’ where I have to push myself purposefully to make something happen.
LD: So now that The Sacrifice of Isaac is finished, if you had the chance to compose anything next, what would it be?
JL: Well, I have received and am working on a few commissions at the moment, but perhaps these are pieces which are too incomplete for me to talk about yet. But if offered a blank cheque, I would have to say my Fifth Symphony.
LD: Would it be in C Minor, like Beethoven’s own Fifth Symphony we talked about right at the start?
JL: You bet!
There will be many readers, including me, who will rejoice that Jonathan Leshnoff has chosen a musical path whereby he has seemingly taken up the baton left by Shostakovich and William Walton, as opposed to the more atonal path trodden instead by Boulez, Stockhausen and others. For me, he joins other contemporary composers, such as James Macmillan and Peteris Vasks, in writing music that is not just accessible, but distinctive and individual in its own right. To my ears, if you enjoy the music of the aforementioned Walton and Shostakovich, plus Samuel Barber, Copland, Prokofiev, Vaughan Williams and others of that era, Leshnoff offers a rich body of works from which you will derive much pleasure and interest. If you are inclined to explore them, the best places to start would be either the recent Piano Concerto, the powerful Fourth Symphony, or the slightly earlier Double Concerto for Violin and Viola and if they are found to be pleasing, then there is no reason why the remainder of Leshnoff’s works should not be equally enjoyable. Either way, with his music starting to be performed by major US orchestras with their conductors Michael Stern, Robert Spano, Marin Alsop, Manfred Honeck and Yannick Nézet-Séguin, it feels as if it is only a matter of time before his music starts appearing regularly in concert halls worldwide outside of the United States – and we will all be the richer for it. Perhaps, likewise, he will continue his remarkable development and truly become America’s next great composer.
At the end of our two-hour conversation, I asked Jonathan how he would like to be remembered.
JL: I would like to be remembered as a symphonist, but if not that, then as a composer whose music took people on a journey. Where that journey took them, what they choose to see or hear, whether they experienced something scary, or painful – that’s their choice, but it’s my job to open that door. However, if at the end of that journey their life is at a better place than it was at the start, then I have done my job – and that would make me very happy.
Lee Denham March 2021
Reviews on MWI
Starburst (2010) review
Guitar Concerto (2013) review
Four Dances for String Quartet (2014) review
Symphony No. 3 (2015) review
Symphony No. 4, "Heichalos" (2017) review
Double Concerto for Clarinet and Bassoon (2018) review review
Piano Concerto (2019) review
List of Compositions