LESHNOFF: Violin Concerto (2005, rev. 2007). Distant Reflections (2003).
String Quartet No. 1 "Pearl German" (2006).
Charles Wetherbee (violin), Baltimore Chamber Orchestra/Markand Thaker,
Carpe Diem String Quartet.
Naxos 8.559398 (B) (DDD) TT: 56:34
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A fascinating struggle between influence and ventriloquism. I tend to cling
to an habitual pessimism, so I'm seldom disappointed and occasionally pleasantly
surprised. At any rate, I found myself in a funk recently about the state
of contemporary music, particularly compared to the heroic age of Modernism.
The next Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartók, Hindemith, Prokofiev, Shostakovich,
Ives, Copland, Piston, Poulenc, Vaughan Williams, Britten -- ubi sunt? Then I heard this disk, which released a flood of memories of composers
like Arnold Rosner, Jennifer Higdon, John Adams, Aaron Jay Kernis, Kenneth
Fuchs, John Harbison, and even such lyricists as Michael Daugherty and
Eric Ewazen, among others. After the Sixties and Seventies, which with
few exceptions in my opinion consisted mainly of futzing around, I find
myself at what I hope becomes the dawn of another rich musical age, where
the next generation builds on the work of previous eras, including the
futzing around, now turned to deep expressive purposes. Count Jonathan
Leshnoff among the pleasant surprises.
Not that Leshnoff bestrides contemporary music like a colossus -- at least
not yet -- but then again, he's still, I believe, in his thirties (for
a composer other than Mozart, Mussorgsky, or Schubert, relatively young).
All of these pieces to some extent exhibit the traits of a young composer
trying to find himself.
Distant Reflections points to Leshnoff's early interest in Renaissance
and Baroque music. One might even call it his take on the Vaughan Williams
Tallis Fantasia. Like that earlier piece, it divides the strings into ensemble
(divided into as many as 23 parts), soloist, and off-stage quartet. Leshnoff
also throws in a discrete piano, mainly for more color contrast. Within
a large "arch" form (something that has attracted Leshnoff in
several pieces), long, chant-like themes dominate (the first one sports
a fraternal look to the well-known Gloria intonation). At two points in
the score, one about a third of the way in and the other about a third
of the way from the end, Leshnoff quotes from the Kyrie of Ockeghem's gorgeous
Missa Prolationem and may have made a mistake doing so, since the interest
and beauty of the score at those points lifts by about three miles. Still,
Leshnoff has made something beautiful of his own. The work promises good
things to come.
The String Quartet "Pearl German" is neither Searing Personal
Statement nor Grand Philosophy, but a birthday present for the wife of
a patron. Yet it still has plenty of interest -- again, mainly in whose
mask Leshnoff tries on and what how he acts with it. The work consists
of four movements: "Winter," "Spring," "Summer," and "Autumn." The
quartet begins with winter rather than with the traditional spring because
Ms. German's birthday comes in January. Three of the four movements are
in arch form -- starting quietly, building to a climax, and coming down
to a quiet ending. "Winter," like Distant Reflections, features
long, lyrical lines against static chords. "Spring" (my favorite
movement) imaginatively juxtaposes plucked and bowed instruments and leaps
along like the American neoclassicists of the Forties. "Summer" begins
much like "Winter," with again long lines against slowly-changing
chords. I should also mention that these lines seem to grow out of Leshnoff's
earlier fascination with plainchant, without sounding particularly like
plainchant. Furthermore, I hear more than a hint of George Crumb in this.
However, Leshnoff seems to have absorbed the influence into the beginnings
of a personal idiom. "Autumn" interests me the most of all. For
one thing, it boasts the most beautiful theme in the score. For some strange
reason, however, Leshnoff drops it until the very end and fills the rest
of the movement with music that strikes me as a rewrite of Barber's Adagio (originally for string quartet). Now, I distinguish between influence and
what I call ventriloquism. If in "Summer," Leshnoff reveals Crumb's
influence, he comes dangerously close to ventriloquism in "Autumn," as
if he doesn't trust his own powers. I think him immensely talented, although
unrealized. Unfortunately, he will never find his own voice via this route.
The best-realized piece on the program (and the most eclectic) is the nifty,
five-movement, chamber-like violin concerto. As I listened, I kept being
put in mind of many other composers, all fashioned into a consistent idiom,
but the most important of all eluded me. I finally realized that the composer
that most thoroughly haunts the score is that peerless epigone, Leonard
Bernstein, and especially his Serenade and Facsimile. The notes, however,
are all Leshnoff's own, and, furthermore, they are the right notes. One
encounters no filler here, no "composer on automatic." This concerto
does the hard job of communicating directly with a listener. If you can
handle Shostakovich or Bernstein, you'll have no trouble with Leshnoff.
However, Leshnoff pitches a really interesting curve in the fourth movement.
It breaks into two main sections: a slow introduction and a fast body,
which winds down at the end and elides into the "Elegy" finale.
Almost immediately in the introduction, one encounters the extremely-memorable
first chord of Barber's Adagio, in what sounds to me like exactly the same
voicing. However, the harmonic progression and the melody immediately differ
-- no question of plagiarism or mere imitation. It's as if Leshnoff, like
Duchamp, has discovered a "found object" and given it a new meaning.
In terms of realizing a personal voice, Leshnoff succeeds best in the finale,
a beautifully lyric movement, but he still stands on the edge of a breakthrough
rather than actually breaks through.
He should be very happy in his performers. Charles Wetherbee gives a smashing
first reading. His tone penetrates. He's excitingly in tune and rhythmically
alive. As to interpretation, I sense a bit of reticence, which will likely
disappear with repeated playing. Wetherbee's string quartet, the Carpe
Diem, does beautifully in the "Pearl German" quartet, especially
in the matter of ensemble. This comes out best in the scherzo third movement.
If they seem even more reticent than Wetherbee in the violin concerto,
one can argue that the problem lies with the piece itself. Leshnoff hasn't
created something totally convincing here. Markand Thaker and the Baltimore
Chamber Orchestra do well with Distant Reflections, even implanting more
structural spine in it than one would expect. I quarrel only with the balance.
The "offstage" string quartet sounds as if it molests the microphone,
it's that close.
I realize I've committed an "on the one hand this, on the other hand
that" review, and I should say that I like this CD probably more than
you'd gather from reading me. Leshnoff has his artistic hurdles to overcome.
Yet his ambition (in a good sense) is high, and he has the gift of writing
emotionally direct music which avoids the cheap and easy. Naxos plans to
release at least another disc of his music (including his First Symphony).
I can't wait.
S.G.S. (January 2010)