Classical Lost and Found
, January 2011
Not too long ago we told you about up-and-coming American composer Jonathan Leshnoff (b. 1973), and here are three more symphonic pieces on this second volume from Naxos devoted to him. An associate professor of music at Towson University in Maryland and composer-in-residence with the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, he’s a contemporary composer who writes intellectually stimulating music with immediate appeal.
Dating from 2007, his Double Concerto for Violin, Viola and Orchestra is set in four movements. The slow opening one begins with a dark anguished theme (DA) that we’ll be hearing from again. A last minute sprinkling of notes on the piano adds a glitter of hope, but not for long as the movement ends in gloom.
The mood turns manic in the following scherzo, where fragments of DA writhe around each other in a neoclassical tarantella sometimes reminiscent of Stravinsky (1882–1971). Marked “Mysterious,” a sense of nocturnal calm prevails in the penultimate movement as the soloists powered by DA, glide through star-studded celestial space.
In contrast, the finale is a virtuosic tour de force with additional neoclassical associations as well as intimations of Shostakovich’s (1906–1975) more frenetic moments. Leshnoff instills it with an amazing sense of Brownian motion, to borrow a concept from physics. The closing measures see the return of DA to conclude the concerto in subdued cyclicity.
Subtitled “Forgotten Chants and Refrains,” his first symphony was written in 2004. He tells us it’s an attempt to state in symphonic terms that despite race and religion all human beings are related by the emotions of joy and grief. He includes thematic quotes from a number of early liturgical works of varying creeds, including ones by Guillaume Dufay (c. 1397–1474) and Salomone Rossi (c. 1570–1630). These are meant to signify all mankind should work together for a world full of consideration and respect.
In five conjoined movements, the first two are successively reverential and spiky with six-tone-pealing tubular chimes imitating church bells. Both have a predominance of modal themes, one of which is announced by a solo trombone, bringing to mind the music of Alan Hovhaness (1911–2000) [track-5, beginning at 00:40].
Based on plainsong melodies punctuated by what sounds like an actual church bell, the introspective middle section is the symphony’s center or gravity. The work then closes with an “allegro” and “resolution,” which are thematically as well as structurally mirror images of the opening movements. The penultimate one is characterized by percussively accented scurrying modal motifs, while more chimes and Hovhanessian trombone solos highlight the restrained finale.
The disc is filled out with an eight-minute orchestral essay titled Rush. Written in 2008, it’s based on themes from some of the composer’s solo piano pieces. A thoroughly engaging work, it begins and ends “in a rush” with a couple of mesmerizing moonlit respites for solo winds and strings.
One couldn’t ask for better soloists than violinist Charles Wetherbee and violist Roberto Díaz in the concerto. They are afforded inspired support by acclaimed American conductor Michael Stern and the Tennessee-based IRIS Orchestra, who also max out the other selections. Recorded live, there’s a fervor about these performances that make Leshnoff’s vivacious music all the more exciting. By the way, does anyone know what “IRIS” stands for?
Made in the same venue on different occasions, these recordings project convincing soundstages. The concerto seems a bit more confined, which may relate to soloist-orchestra balance issues under live circumstances. The presence of an audience is only noticeable at one pertussal point in the symphony [track-6 at 02:06–08], so it would seem the Naxos engineers deserve a pat on the back for some clever miking and editing.
The instrumental timbre is excellent across the entire frequency spectrum, which is notable for crystalline highs and well defined bass. Leshnoff’s brilliant scoring with its many imaginative percussive effects will delight audiophiles and contemporary music fans alike.