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

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)