Jonathan Leshnoff, a Popular Composer of Classical Music
Jonathan Leshnoff is a gifted American composer whose works are currently being played by major orchestras around the world. The Philadelphia Orchestra and its principal flutist, Jeffrey Khaner, premiered his Flute Concerto and the Baltimore Symphony gave the first performance of his new orchestral work
which was also commissioned by the Kansas City Symphony and the Orquesta de Extremadura. His oratorio
was premiered by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. In one single month, March 2013, the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia will give the first performance of is Cello Concerto and the Santa Barbara Symphony will premiere his Concerto Grosso. He also teaches at Towson University, so he is a very busy man. We caught up with him at the university in November.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I grew up in Caldwell, New Jersey. It’s a suburban town outside of New York City. I’ve always been interested in music. When I was a child I used my crayons as drum sticks instead of coloring with them. I’ve never been away from music. My formal study began at age eight went I started violin lessons. I composed a little back then, too. For Chanukah and for my birthday, my parents would take me to Patelsons in New York City to buy scores. I got the classics, Beethoven symphonies, works by Brahms, etc. That’s how my love of structure and formal composition began. Eventually, I was able to take theory and composition lessons. I also picked up piano along the way, but I’m not the best of pianists.
Q: How did you come to choose music as a career?
A: Music chose me. I really had no other choice and my wonderful parents let me follow my inner calling. One of the most important aspects of the art of composition is learning to put exactly what you want to hear down on paper. For example, there is a difference between a dotted quarter note and a quarter note tied to an eighth note. It’s a significant difference. The great composers always wrote exactly what they meant.
Q: Where are you now?
A: I’m in my office at school where I do all my work. What’s most important to me is silence, meditation, and thinking. That is why I don’t own a cell phone. I’m a slave to e-mail and that’s bad enough. All the buzzing and beeping of technology kills deep thought because it disturbs your focus. My students are in to all the new gadgets and many of them can’t focus on one thing for more than three minutes at a time.
Q: What courses do you teach at the moment?
A: This semester, I teach Contemporary Music and Orchestration.
Q: Who was the teacher who had the most influence on you?
A: That was Moshe Cotel. He was a New Yorker who taught at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore for many years. He was a very quiet teacher. He gave advice, but it was very sparse. By this teaching method he forced students to come up with their own answers. He did not impose any style or even any restrictions. His only requirements were that you be consistent and that you be able to explain what you did. I really think that his stoic, Zen approach taught me independence. Unfortunately, he died relatively young. He was a very much Zen, stoic, philosophical person and I miss him greatly. He was most important in my development. When I teach, I use some of his methods in conjunction with those of another of my mentors, Thomas Benjamin. When Tom came into the classroom, he would be quiet until the students began to generate thought. That is exactly what I do in class. I’ll put an example on the blackboard and I won’t say a word. I won’t even ask the students for their thoughts. Silence is great. People get uncomfortable and they squirm. That’s good. A great deal of what I teach my students will be forgotten. Thus, I choose to develop the process of thinking. I force students to make connections and put things together. If I can teach them that, it will always be with them.
Q: How did you make the transition from student to professional composer?
A: I got the job here at the Towson University College of Fine Arts and Communication in Baltimore, Maryland. Since then I have become a full professor, which is great. Simply being a professor gives you the time and space to compose. Some 12 or 13 years ago I wanted to write for an orchestra, so I sent my compositions off to them. They often sent the packages back unopened. After that I began to find people who were interested in working with me. For example, I met a saxophonist who asked me to write a piece for him. It wasn’t the orchestral piece that I wanted at the time, but I started to work on it. It was only when I really listened to the colors and timbres of the instrument that I realized its possibilities and was amazed as I wrote the piece. The project became, in my eyes, wonderful and the saxophone is now a choice instrument of mine. The same thing happened with the marimba. At first I grumbled, but the more I worked with it, the more I discovered about the instrument. I was bowled over by the fact that there are as many colors in it as there are in an entire orchestra. So, in order to get my works played, I began to write for single instruments and combinations of them. That way I got my music out to more people. I’ve had some very lucky breaks, too.
Q: Do you travel much?
A: It depends upon the season, but travel breaks up your flow. Day in and day out, I build up a flow. I gain connections where I put together harmonies and lines. If I have to stop and fly out somewhere, I feel it. Afterwards it takes time to get back to where you were.
Q: What were your first compositions like?
A: I exclude all the pieces from my student days and concentrate on the ones that I think are important additions to my catalog. My early works are all serious and each is focused on an element of craft. I’ve always been interested in finding newness in pieces that I love. I don’t feel that newness in composition has to be experimental. It doesn’t have to be a process of abandonment, which it has been in past decades. I believe that there is creativity and newness in reinvigorating the age-old beloved techniques of counterpoint, harmony, line, form, and orchestration. There is just as much creativity in recontexualizing these aspects as there is in avant-garde. My compositions have always focused on that, from my earliest works to my recent pieces. The compositions I have written later on benefit from a process of refinement. I think of the way Shostakovich could say such powerful things with so few notes. Beethoven, in his Fifth Symphony, could say so much with the first four notes. I want to be expressive with as much emotional depth as I have always had, but at the same time, I want to be succinct. I have to write after my heart. It is interested in symphonic and concerto forms. I’m very blessed in that I have so many opportunities to pursue my dreams.
Q: Which composers of the past interest you the most?
A: Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Bartók, they are the grand masters. I love each of them in a different way. There is nothing like Bach. Talk about the mastery of counterpoint! He had the vertical and the horizontal working in perfect consonance. Amazing! It’s unbelievable that he had these independent, living lines synchronized with these incredible harmonies with myriad twists and turns. It’s utterly remarkable. How could he get such expression? You can listen to three seconds of music maybe even two, and you know it is Bach. He was able to stamp his style that clearly. What an accomplishment. What is even more amazing is that it is through his constriction that his creativity comes out. He eliminates some options and chooses others so that you know it is Bach and he never gets stale. It just blows me away. How someone could be so consigned to rules but so absolutely and utterly creative? That’s the battle cry of reinvigorating the past forms. There is so much that can be done with what’s already there.
Beethoven’s music has startling power in its vertical structures. That also blows me away. To me there’s nothing that replaces the intensity of his sound. How could he get such awesome intensity out of the first four notes of the Fifth Symphony? What he can do there is simply not human. The logical construction of his compositions, their consistency, and the interrelationships of motifs with the sheer power of his expression are amazing. It’s one of my greatest inspirations. It teaches me how to be concise and terse with minimal notes and motifs. Beethoven is the model for that. Bartók is something of a reincarnation of Bach. He took Bach’s contrapuntal ideas and recontextualized them. There is a certain spirit in Bartók that I find remarkable. He breaks so lovingly and effortlessly into his folk idiom. He takes that folk idiom in its purity and authenticity and he dresses it up in 20th-century techniques. I find that to be remarkable. I also love the sheer energy of his pieces.
Q: Do you ever write vocal music?
A: Yes, soprano Jessica Rivera did an oratorio of mine about a year and a half ago, and we realized that we share many musical similarities. I wrote a song cycle for her that she will perform in Carnegie Hall in the fall of 2013 with Robert Spano accompanying. Carnegie Hall co-commissioned the piece, which was written in celebration of a vibrant, young woman’s life that was taken too soon.
Q: How do you go about composing?
A: Usually an idea just wells up. I work on structure first. I map out the piece in big, broad lines. Sometimes I go to a classroom and make a diagram on the blackboard or I tack a big piece of paper to the wall and sketch what I want visually. The rest of the composition can be fleshed out from those sketches. I just have to find the right chords, melodic materials, and orchestrations to make that structure happen. I definitely work hard at composing. I revise and work some more. Nothing comes right out of my head. It takes effort but I love doing it. I keep revising until I finish the piece. Then, once it is finished, I am happy with it. If I go back it’s because I’ve over orchestrated or covered a soloist. I don’t go back to fuss with a piece.
Q: How frequently are your pieces played?
was co-commissioned by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Kansas City Symphony, and the Orquestra de Extremadura in 2009, and has been played by five other orchestras since then for a total of eight performances. Several of my works are co-commissions so they are played in a run of first performances. Recently, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra in Virginia performed my flute concerto. This March, the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia is premiering my cello concerto. A week later, the Santa Barbara Symphony is giving the first performance of my concerto grosso. Next year, guitarist Manuel Barrueco will be premiering my Guitar Concerto. There is a complete listing of upcoming performances on my website jonathanleshnoff.com. I can’t give too many specifics about the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 seasons yet, but they will be announced on the website soon.
Q: What are you composing now?
A: I’m working on a Piano Quartet, a Clarinet Concerto, a saxophone/wind ensemble work, and an oratorio for choir, viola, and orchestra with texts by Edgar Allen Poe. I’m also orchestrating my Guitar Concerto. It’s rather crazy right now. I hope to be able to write many more symphonies, concertos, and quartets. [He laughs softly.] My Percussion Concerto will be played a few times this spring. In April, the String Orchestra of New York City will be recording a CD of my music for string orchestra, which, of course, will take some time to be released. There is a recording project with my Trombone Concerto, too. I’ve written concertos for seven instruments up to now: violin, cello, flute, trombone, guitar, percussion, and a double concerto for violin and viola. Since I do not play many of these instruments, I go figure out how each instrument works, and that’s hard! Thank goodness I have performers who are willing to donate their time and work with me. I really have to spend time getting to know an instrument, just as I have to spend time getting to know a person. I can work much more efficiently with an instrument when I fully understand it. Each instrument has a certain propensity and I want to work with that.
Q: Do you use much modern technology?
A: I work with
notation software and I make sound files all the time. I do use modern technology all the time but I try not to be a slave to it.
Q: How do you see the future of classical music?
A: My composer colleagues and I are trying to construct it. It most certainly is continuing. As long as there is humanity, there will be art.
String Quartet No. 2.
Seven Glances at a Mirage.
Cosmic Variations on a Haunted Theme.
…Without a Chance
Carpe Diem Quartet;
Opus 3 Trio;
Jerome Simas (cl);
Stephen Miakhy (vn);
Joshua Nemith (pn);
Barry Dove (vib);
Svet Stoyanov (mmb);
Dave DePeters (perc)
NAXOS 8.559721 (50:46)
Composer Jonathan Leshnoff is riding the crest of international fame, and interest from a number of major orchestras has moved his recent work in the direction of large-scale composition. The robustly tonal music on this compact disc was composed a few years earlier, so it has had time to mellow. Leshnoff’s Second String Quartet was commissioned by the family and friends of Dr. and Mrs. Robert Edelman in honor of the couple’s 50th wedding anniversary. The theme of the first movement is based on a Jewish Sabbath Chant that the doctor has been known to sing. Its nostalgic tunes start softly and build to full strength as various instruments come to the fore with inventive variations and then gradually recede into quiet repose. The following two movements are said to delineate some of the couple’s positive personal traits. The second movement begins with delicate phrases decorating a melody that is followed by a folk song. In the final section, a folkdance breaks into quick phrases that could form the background for a huge party where children and grandchildren dance with glee. The Carpe Diem Quartet plays this most interesting work with joy and passion.
Seven Glances at a Mirage,
written for violin, clarinet, and piano, actually has seven short movements enclosed within its 12-minute time span. Since the theme floats in and out of focus, the reference to a mirage makes sense. Here the clarinet is the pied piper that we follow into the world of the mirage. We have no idea where it will lead us as we begin the journey but the calming chords of the piano assure us of safety. The violin is seldom in front, but it adds some sweetness and luxurious cushioning to the mix. The finale leaves the listener still wondering about the identity of the mirage, but that’s part of the fun rendered by this interesting piece. Jerome Simas, clarinet; Stephen Miahky, violin; and Joshua Nemith, piano; play it most gracefully. In
Cosmic Variations on a Haunted Theme
the violin gets its due. This 17-minute work has nine variations on two themes that are worked out with a full palette of instrumental colors. It was written for the Opus 3 Trio and they play it skillfully. …
Without a Chance
is a completely different type of composition that illustrates Leshnoff’s versatility. Written for the United States Marine Band, it is played on this disc by Barry Dove, vibraphone; Svet Stoyanov, marimba; and Dave DePeters, percussion. It is a memorial for those who died on September 11, 2001. Opening with funereal bells, it takes us through the horrors wreaked on that unforgettable morning and then gradually leads us to a place of compassion and healing.