Born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, September 8, 1973; now living in Baltimore
For a number of years, young Baltimore composer Jonathan Leshnoff wrote finely crafted works that were only known to a small circle, especially at the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra where he is composer-in-residence. But more recently, the career of this graduate of Johns Hopkins, the Peabody Institute and the University of Maryland has taken off and received major attention in the U.S. and Europe. The Philadephia Orchestra commissioned a concerto from him for its principal flutist Jeffrey Khaner, which will be premiered there in 2011 under the baton of Charles Dutoit. The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia asked for a 50-minute oratorio for the Kimmel Center’s inaugural International Arts Festival also in 2011. The Naxos label embarked on a three-disk project showcasing Leshnoff’s music, and already the first disk, featuring his impressive Violin Concerto, is among its top-forty sellers. The second Naxos CD, with his beautiful Double Concerto for Violin and Viola, will be released in November.
It’s not difficult to understand why this associate professor of music at Towson University is being embraced by the music world. He writes music that is emotionally powerful, melodically rich and elegantly orchestrated and that, moreover, is rooted in tonality (though he says he has invented his own harmonic system) and thoroughly accessible. Many critics have called him a Neo-Romantic, although he doesn’t particularly like the term. And he doesn’t think that his new Starburst is particularly Neo-Romantic in style. “It’s a departure from what I’ve written before in the sense that eight minutes doesn’t allow me to really spin out a melody. It’s more extroverted in style, and rhythmic drive and forward momentum are its most prominent characteristics.”
Receiving its world premiere at these concerts, Starburst was commissioned by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Marin Alsop. Leshnoff credits Dr. Solomon Snyder—longtime member of the BSO Board of Directors and a generous donor for new works—for the commission and has dedicated Starburst to him. Two other orchestras joined in as co-commissioners: the Kansas City Symphony and its music director Michael Stern, and the Fundación Orquesta de Extremadura in Spain and its music director Jesús Amigo.
Leshnoff chose the name “Starburst” because “the word has a lot of energy to it and I like the image of light.” He adds that the piece has “lots of orchestral shimmer” with its emphasis on fast patterns in the upper woodwinds and strings. Starburst is structured in two parts. Two important motives are introduced at the beginning: a running or “fleeting” motive in the woodwinds and a rhythmically crisper, more detached idea in the strings. The music climbs to a big outburst, and then a clarinet cadenza in a much slower tempo leads to the second phase. The fleeting motive returns in a march-like, repetitive guise. “From then on, the piece gets bigger and bigger until it explodes at the end —just like its name.
Violin Concerto in D Major
Born in Oranienbaum, Russia, June 17, 1882; died in New York City, April 6, 1971
In the 1930s, an era dominated by such violin virtuosos as Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Kreisler, the young Polish-American violinist Samuel Dushkin knew better than to challenge these superstars on the core Beethoven-Brahms-Bruch repertoire. Fortunately, Dushkin had a genuine passion for contemporary music and a desire to expand violinists' options. In the spirit of nothing ventured, nothing gained, he approached Willy Strecker of the German publishing house of B. Schott to see if Strecker would act as intermediary in commissioning a concerto from Igor Stravinsky. Impressed with the idea, Strecker made the match early in 1931.
The composer was initially less enthusiastic. "I hesitated at first, because I am not a violinist and I was afraid that my slight knowledge of that instrument would not be sufficient to enable me to solve the many problems … of a major work specially composed for it." Stravinsky also had little patience with the vanities of star virtuosos. But he was pleasantly surprised by Dushkin: "Besides his remarkable gifts as a born violinist, he possessed musical culture … and—in the exercise of his profession—an abnegation that is very rare." The two collaborated closely on the concerto, which they premiered together in Berlin on October 23, 1931. For several years thereafter, they gave recitals together, for which Stravinsky created his Duo concertant for violin and piano.
The Violin Concerto in D is a shining example of the spirit and manner of Stravinsky's neo-classical period. In full revolt from late Romanticism and his early folk-Russian style, the composer since the early 1920s had espoused a rigorously abstract aesthetic inspired by the forms and musical language of the 18th-century Baroque masters. In creating his Violin Concerto, he dismissed the standard concertos as models and harkened back to Bach. "The subtitles of my Concerto—Toccata, Aria, Capriccio—may suggest Bach, and so, in a superficial way, might the musical substance. I am very fond of the Bach Concerto for Two Violins as the duet of the soloist with a violin from the orchestra in the last movement … may show. But my Concerto employs other duet combinations too, and the texture is almost always more characteristic of chamber music than of orchestral music."
This chamber music-like relationship between soloist and orchestra sets this work apart from the typical solo showcase vehicle; as the composer wrote: "I did not care about exploiting violin virtuosity … because the violin in combination was my real interest." But when he claimed, "the technical demands of the piece are relatively tame," he misleads us. Stravinsky larded the solo part with difficult multiple-stopped chords, beginning with the very first sound we hear: the violinist playing the three open strings of D, A and E, but with the A lofted two octaves into the stratosphere. He called it the "passport" to the entire work, and its shocking, astringent sound launches all four movements.
The opening Toccata has the ironic detachment characteristic of many of Stravinsky's neo-classical works. After the "passport" chord grabs our attention, trumpets, then oboes introduce a twisting Baroque "turn" ornament from which the soloist builds a wry theme. The music becomes more emotionally engaged in the two slow middle movements in the form of the Baroque aria da capo. Most striking of these is Aria II in which the "passport" is a cry of anguish introducing a richly ornamented song for the soloist, plumbing depths of feeling. The final Capriccio is a light-hearted dance of changing partners, in which the soloist duets in turn with bassoon, horn, an orchestral violin and flute. Incisive Stravinskian rhythms close the work with authority.
Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, op. 27
Born in Oneg, Russia, April 1, 1873; died in Beverly Hills, California, March 28, 1943
One of the most lavishly gifted of musicians, Sergei Rachmaninoff was not only a composer, but one of this century's greatest pianists and during his Russian years a celebrated operatic and symphonic conductor as well. But he often found his multiple talents more curse than blessing. As he explained, "When I am concertizing, I cannot compose. When I feel like writing music, I have to concentrate on that — I cannot touch the piano. When I am conducting, I can neither compose nor play concerts. … I have to concentrate on any one thing I am doing to such a degree that it does not seem to allow me to take up anything else."
In 1906, the urge to compose predominated. But first Rachmaninoff had to extricate himself from his post as conductor at Moscow's Imperial Grand Theater and the hectic social life that came with it. To secure the serenity he needed for creation, he moved his family to Dresden, where he lived virtually incognito for the next three years. The fruits of this self-imposed exile included his First Piano Sonata, the brooding tone poem The Isle of the Dead, and his Second Symphony.
Composing this work required laying some demons to rest. In 1897, Rachmaninoff's First Symphony had had a disastrous premiere in St. Petersburg; the brutal reviews it received almost scuttled his composing career for good. Thus, he was very secretive with friends and the press about what he was up to in Dresden, even flatly denying he was working on a symphony. "I give my solemn word—no more symphonies. Curse them! I don't know how to write them, but mainly I don't want to." But in fact the Second Symphony was drafted at high speed in the final months of 1906, then painstakingly revised and orchestrated throughout 1907. Rachmaninoff returned to Russia to conduct its premiere in St. Petersburg on January 26, 1908; its unqualified success finally vindicated his powers as a symphonist.
Soviet music critic Konstantin Kuznetsov has called this work the "Russian Lyric Symphony"—"so direct and sincere are its themes, and so naturally and spontaneously do they develop." Indeed, the Second draws its power and popularity from Rachmaninoff's talent for creating ardent, emotionally compelling melodies. "Music must first and foremost be loved," he once said. "It must come from the heart and it must be directed to the heart. Otherwise it cannot hope to be lasting, indestructible art."
The first movement grows from its opening phrase, played quietly by cellos and basses. This motto idea—an upward sigh of a half step, sinking back into a curling four-note tail—spawns all this movement's themes and underpins the entire symphony. The violins immediately spin it into a swirling melody. The music of this slow introduction reaches a peak of emotional ardor before the English horn leads smoothly into the main Allegro section. Above rocking clarinets, the violins introduce the principal theme, itself more lyrical and expansive than most symphonic first themes. A dramatic transitional passage provides necessary contrast before Rachmaninoff presents his even more lyrical second theme, with melancholy woodwind sighs and a soaring violin melody. Solo violin launches the development section, which explores the dramatic potential of the motto. We only realize we are safely home from this turbulence when the woodwind-violin second theme reprises its tender melancholy.
The second-movement scherzo is as vigorous as the first movement was languorous. Throughout his career, Rachmaninoff used the stark, down-and-up "Dies irae" chant theme from the Catholic rite for the dead as a leitmotif; here, it is hidden in the horns' boisterous opening theme. Yet in the midst of this movement's manic energy, there is time for another luxuriant Rachmaninoff tune for the violins. The middle trio section features a ferocious string fugue, so testing that it is included on orchestral auditions for aspiring violinists and violists. The remarkable ending has a demonic edge, as the brass intone a sinister chorale, derived from the "Dies irae" and the symphony’s opening motto idea.
The Adagio third movement is luscious, heartfelt melody from beginning to end. The most famous is the violins' upward sighing phrase at the beginning. But this is only introduction to the solo clarinet's long-spun-out melody. A plaintive dialogue among solo oboe, English horn, and strings fills the middle section; this music recalls nostalgically the themes of the symphony's slow introduction.
Rachmaninoff opens the finale with a wild tarantella dance. A wry march for woodwinds provides a second thematic strand. And the third is the last big lyrical melody for violins, the most sweeping of them all. The exposition closes with a reminiscence of the Adagio's upward-sighing music. In the development section, listen for one of the work's most extraordinary passages: a long crescendo of downward scales in different speeds for the various instruments. This is a dazzling recreation of the pealing of Russian church bells: a sound Rachmaninoff loved as a child and recalled in many of his works. The coda offers a grand reprise of the violins' big tune and finishes in a blaze of Czarist splendor.
Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2010
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