by Walter Simmons
LESHNOFF Double Concerto. Symphony No. 1, “Forgotten Chants and Refrains.” Rush ● Michael Stern, cond; IRIS Orchestra; Charles Wetherbee (vn); Roberto Díaz (va) ● NAXOS 8.559670 (56:33)
Turning 40 this year, Jonathan Leshnoff is proving to be one of the most gifted traditionalist composers of his generation. Born and raised in New Jersey, he is a graduate of the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, and cites as his most important teachers Moshe Cotel and Thomas Benjamin. He seems to have settled in Baltimore, and is currently composer-in-residence of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, and on the faculty of Towson University.
This is Naxos’s second release devoted to the music of Leshnoff. I reviewed its predecessor favorably in Fanfare 34:3; that one featured a violin concerto and a string quartet. Looking back at that review, I see that I wrote about his Violin Concerto, “Flagrantly and unabashedly tonal and melodic, its conventional and accessible style calls to mind the music of Lowell Liebermann, though it reveals a greater sense of expressive urgency.” Funny, I was thinking exactly the same thing as I listened to this CD, except that I find this more recent release even more appealing by quite a margin. Like the earlier CD, each piece falls into a slightly different stylistic category, yet each remains satisfying in its own way.
Almost immediately after composing his Violin Concerto, Leshnoff was asked to write a Double Concerto featuring violin and viola. He completed the work later the same year, in 2007. This ambitious four-movement concerto grabbed me immediately. Its style is thoroughly traditional and clearly tonal in the late-romantic sense. That is, the listener will hear nothing that couldn’t have been written by a neo-romantic composer 50 years ago. This is, of course, a bold and courageous posture for a composer to take, because not only does he place himself in direct comparison with many celebrated figures of the recent past, but his chosen language makes it virtually impossible for him to avoid the “sounds like” references that so many critics use to diminish the stature of traditionalist composers and their works. I must emphasize that “sounds like” references in this review are provided solely to give the reader a frame of reference that might facilitate his forming a mental impression of what the music sounds like, not a criticism or accusation of “derivativeness.”
Lasting nearly half an hour, the Double Concerto is a serious, passionate work in four movements. Its opening movement is fraught with a grim, heartfelt pathos strongly reminiscent of Ernest Bloch. The second movement is a lively, exciting scherzo with no shortage of lyrical moments. The third movement is a mysterious nocturne that returns to the somber cast of the opening. The finale is a perpetual-motion affair that calls Shostakovich to mind; despite its continuous vigor, it ends the work on a subdued note. The solo performances, featuring violinist Charles Wetherbee (who excelled in the aforementioned Violin Concerto) and violist Roberto Díaz are truly masterly, while the orchestra, under the direction of its founder Michael Stern, provides the solid, confident support one might expect of a far more seasoned ensemble. The IRIS Orchestra, formed in 2000 as the resident orchestra of the Germantown Performing Arts Center in Tennessee, is extraordinarily fine, and Stern appears to be a committed advocate of Leshnoff’s music.
Leshnoff’s Symphony No. 1 was commissioned by Stern, and is subtitled, “Forgotten Chants and Refrains.” It was completed in 2004—earlier than the Double Concerto—but is more obviously a work of the turn of the 21st century, in its emphasis on sonority and gesture reminiscent of the music of Joseph Schwantner, as well as in its passages of rhythmic stasis. The work comprises five movements, played without pause, and is supposedly a “Brotherhood of Man” sort of statement. Lately I find myself on a campaign against references to extramusical content and meaning that is not borne out by the music itself. I have no particular criticisms of Leshnoff’s symphony, which I enjoyed greatly—I just think that its pretense of “[speaking] to all humanity in an uplifting way” is irrelevant. The symphony opens with a slow introduction that produces a great sense of anticipation that is released in the energetic movement that follows. The third movement—the centerpiece—is the longest, and after an eerie opening, becomes more hymnlike, with quotations from earlier religious music, including Gregorian Chant (presumably for purposes of spiritual uplift), before returning to its initial mysterious character. The fourth movement also includes quotations and, like the second, provides rapid activity through swirling gestures. The finale, “Resolution,” is solemn and chant-like, bringing the work—like the Double Concerto—to a subdued conclusion. Despite my carping about extramusical meaning, this is a satisfying work with potentially broad appeal, demonstrating that there is still plenty meaningful to say within the symphonic genre.
Rush is a relatively short, very animated work dating from 2008 that partakes of the post-minimalist manner of John Adams and Michael Torke. It is quite successful in generating the kind of excited exuberance for which such pieces seem to strive, although Rush offers quieter moments as well.
As indicated earlier, the performances presented here are superb, and the music provides just less than an hour of fully enjoyable listening.