About this Recording
8.559398 - LESHNOFF, J.: Violin Concerto / Distant Reflections / String Quartet No. 1 (Wetherbee, Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, Thakar, Carpe Diem String Quartet)

Jonathan Leshnoff (b. 1973)
Violin Concerto • Distant Reflections • String Quartet No. 1, “Pearl German”


Jonathan Leshnoff is a young composer whose star is rapidly rising in the serious (concert) music world. Equally comfortable with the intimacy of chamber music as with larger genres including symphonies and concertos, his music shows a tangible mastery of harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration, but this is not all that distinguishes it. Over the decades Leshnoff’s music has grown considerably in intensity. It is now highly emotionally charged, most notably in slow tempi, as is characteristic of Gustav Mahler. This intensity is precisely what led audiences at both Baltimore performances of the Violin Concerto to accord performers and composer instantaneous standing ovations. Violinist Charles Wetherbee puts it this way: “From the first time I heard Jonathan’s music, I felt there was something in it that makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. It feels like it’s coming from the heart.” Performances of Leshnoff’s growing catalogue of music have multiplied exponentially. From Asia to Europe and North America, his music has been greeted by enthusiastic audiences and has received high critical acclaim. “There is something at once familiar and fresh about both the harmonic and melodic language,” writes Tim Smith (Baltimore Sun); “…one of the most imaginative and compelling works for trumpet and organ that I have ever heard …there is a haunting quality that will ever remain with me,” writes Arthur Butterworth (MusicWeb-International.com); his music is marked by “a diaphanous orchestral fabric of beautiful transparency,” writes Paul Horsley (Kansas City Star).

As Leshnoff’s career has progressed, he has garnered a number of prestigious commissions from individuals, chamber and large ensembles, including two from a consortium of orchestras led by Michael Stern that have assured multiple performances of his Forgotten Chants and Refrains: Symphony No. 1 (2004) and the Violin Concerto recorded here. He has also begun to write choral music for both small and large ensembles including Requiem for the Fallen, a piece dedicated to civilian and military lives lost in recent wars.

Violin Concerto attracted the notice of Markand Thakar, conductor of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, leading to Leshnoff’s appointment as the orchestra’s composer-in-residence. This established a most fruitful series of collaborations including performances of the Violin Concerto (2006), Requiem for the Fallen (2007), and Trombone Concerto (2008). Leshnoff, who wrote the Violin Concerto between January and June 2005, began by framing the piece in five movements and then working with the concept of writing themes that, in the composer’s words, “become more and more developed, leading to the elegiac finale.”

On 16 June 2005 Leshnoff flew to Columbus, Ohio to discuss the concerto with Wetherbee. Their session resulted in a virtual reworking of the entire piece, and the plane ride home, he said: “left me with much to think about.” As a result of this and his own reflection, he continued, “I rewrote the second movement, changed half of the first movement, revised the third movement extensively, and added a fifth movement. Only the fourth movement escaped wholesale revision, but even it underwent changes!” The 2007 revised version is recorded here.

Powerful forces are at work in this Concerto, as Leshnoff eloquently notes: “I once heard a story from a Holocaust survivor. He told me that in a certain camp, the SS guards lined the inmates up and forced difficult labor. To insult the prisoners further, the SS would require that the inmates sing Nazi propaganda songs, which they did. However, as the guards advanced farther up in the line, the prisoners in the back of the line would infuse prayer into the melody of the propaganda song. The story haunted me for a long time. …I had to do something with this story, but I did not know what. My solution came in the structure of this concerto. The second movement is a sustained adagio. The harmonies are quite poignant, and the tone is contemplative. This, to me, represents the prayer of the survivor. This sustained ‘prayerful’ moment is juxtaposed by several agitated and restless movements, which utilize motives of the second movement. The elegiac fifth movement, following a large climax at the end of the fourth movement, brings all elements of the concerto to an introspective close. The integration of the prayerful motives in various textures represents the courage and faith of the inmates that transcended their immediate environment. This work does not use quotation of liturgical prayer or programmatic representation of the concentration camps.”

Listeners will hear influences of several twentieth-century composers of violin concertos: Prokofiev in the motoric writing of the first movement, Barber in the lyricism of the second, and Shostakovich in the jocular scoring for winds and strings in the third. The influence of Crumb, for whose music Leshnoff has a particular affection, can be heard in the subtleties of percussion scoring. But such influences are transitory. While the solo violin part is often fully integrated into the accompanimental fabric, eschewing the flashy cadenzas typical of nineteenth-century concertos, Leshnoff’s writing for violin is not only fully idiomatic, but also makes considerable virtuosic demands. Using a less traditional five-movement structure, the Concerto runs almost seamlessly from the first movement through the fifth in a style that is Leshnoff’s alone: one that shows great harmonic invention, soaring lyricism, impressive rhythmic vitality, and haunting orchestration.

Distant Reflections, given its première by Wetherbee and the Columbus Symphony Orchestra on 6 September 2003, juxtaposes an off-stage string quartet with an onstage violin soloist, pianist, and strings (divided into as many as thirteen parts). Leshnoff uses subtly changing melodic material, which the score notes “fade[s] in and out dramatically as indicated by the dynamics.” Distant Reflections also exhibits his fascination with Medieval, Renaissance, and early Baroque music during this stage of his career, a fascination shown even more clearly in his later Forgotten Chants and Refrains: Symphony No. 1 in which he quotes from the seventeenth-century Salomon Rossi and fifteenth-century Guillaume Dufay. The music here—intense, passionate, and compelling—twice quotes from Johannes Ockeghem’s Missa Prolationum (Kyrie). These fragments, by one of the most important Franco-Flemish composers of the second half of the fifteenth century, are intoned by four solo celli which create a marvelous sonority. Frequent doublings of instruments, in interesting combinations, are featured in this often ethereal yet dramatic short work that begins slowly, then quickens, and finally concludes slowly creating an arch-like structure.

The Pearl German String Quartet, subtitled “The Four Seasons,” was commissioned by Jeremiah German, a retired college professor with an abiding love of music, who has become one of Leshnoff ’s primary patrons. German wanted to celebrate his wife Pearl’s eightieth birthday with something special, and the quartet was first performed in Baltimore on 29 January 2006 at a private party. Unlike Vivaldi, who begins his famous Le quattro stagioni with Spring, Leshnoff begins with Winter because that season was appropriate for a January birthday.

Winter sets individual solo lines against a static chordal backdrop gradually dying away to niente. Leshnoff has opted for serenity and overall stasis. In contrast, Spring, mostly in rapid eighth notes, is not only freely imitative, but also contrasts pizzicato (plucked) and arco (bowed) passages. Summer, a fast movement framed by a slow introduction and conclusion, provides the quartet’s first dramatic climax. Autumn, with its intense soaring lines provides the second before ending contemplatively. In this quartet, themes grow out of one another thus creating cohesion and overall unity.

© Carl B. Schmidt 2008


The Leshnoff Violin Concerto was commissioned by: The Columbus Symphony, Buffalo Philharmonic, Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, National Repertory Orchestra, National Symphony of Mexico, Mr. Robert Kent Scott and by Mr. Jeremiah German in honor of his wife, Dr. Pearl German. Generous support for this recording was provided by Mr. Ted Wiese, Mr. Kim Golden, Dr. and Mrs. Emile Bendit, Mr. and Mrs. Richard Davison, Dr. and Mrs. Arthur Rosenbaum, Mr. and Mrs. Anthony Deering, Dr. and Mrs. Claude Chemtob, Dr. James Brennan, Dr. Christopher Spicer, Dr. Terry B. Ewell, Bill and Dotty Nerenberg, Towson University and the Towson University Department of Music.

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