JONATHAN LESHNOFF: Symphony No. 3; Piano Concerto – Stephen Powell, bar./ Joyce Yang, piano/ Kansas City Symphony/ Michael Stern – Reference Recordings FRESH! Multichannel SACD FR-739, 60:21 *****:
After reviewing Leshnoff’s Double Concerto for Clarinet and Bassoon recently on another marvelous Reference issue, I was most intrigued to see what was coming next. Leshnoff, who according to the promo blurbs I am reading, is among the most played new composers in the country, yet I was not previously familiar with him except for his Atlanta Symphony recording which I have not yet heard, and I spend a lot of time on these things! Perhaps Covid has dulled my sensibilities and alertness to the newest what’s happenin’ goings on. But this guy is special—a youngish-looking 47 years of age, advanced degrees from the Peabody Conservatory and University of Maryland, commissions by over 70 orchestras worldwide (say what?) and a professor of music at Towson University in Towson, Maryland, where he teaches music theory and contemporary music history—the man is on a roll. The question is, is he the real deal?
Without a doubt.
Time was, he would have been chastised, criticized, and taken to the woodshed for the type of music he writes. Certainly those composers who lived through the era of the enfants terribles who were castigating any music written that wasn’t futuristic, “advanced”, or unintelligible to the average listener (and I really love a lot of that music, so no dissing intended) had a lot more to deal with than Mr. Leshnoff does today. Times have changed, and the music that survived the avant-garde age is fairly small, while composers like Copland, Barber, et al, flourish, and those of like ilk seem to be on the uptake. Leshnoff writes from the heart, but with a lot of craft and intelligence. Speaking of Samuel Barber, I think he resembles that master somewhat in that every note I hear feels so perfectly placed, so inevitable, so carefully worked-out by a man who is extremely concerned about the rightness of every mark he scribes, and his orchestration is also brilliant and perfectly done, giving wonderful parts to all instruments. I don’t know what his compositional methods are, but I know what Barber’s were, and the end results seem to mesh.
His 2015 Symphony No. 3 (there is a more recent fourth) is a fascinating piece in that it emerges from the inspiration of letters written home by soldiers in WWI. Though there are only two quoted, and in only one of the three movements, the entire work, which presents its leitmotif in the first movement that colors the whole piece, has a sense of bittersweet turbulence, calmed at last by the serene, though unsettling, third movement. It is highly romantic in a sense, yet tempered by unabashedly expectation-foiling moments of utter satisfaction. Leshnoff is not afraid of showing his feelings, or of his audience reacting emotionally. “Who cares if you listen” is not part of his creed. Stephen Powell’s singing is radiant and heartfelt.
The Piano Concerto is easily one of the most winning examples of its genre that I have heard in years. I won’t go into the Jewish mystical allusions that the composer makes in his notes about the second movement of this work, reflecting on “Neshama”, the third level of the “breathing soul” expressed in thoughts found in the brain, as ultimately I don’t think it has anything to do with what we actually hear. This is not to dismiss the inspiration, which I understand completely and always find intriguing as to how a piece finds genesis, but if you never read the notes it would not affect your perception of a wonderfully beautiful piece of music. In the end, as I always say, the music’s the thing, no matter what else inspires or accompanies it. And this work is quite gripping, not only for its technical difficulties—it is a real concerto—but for the way it lures you in right at the start. Many times, I put on a new recording, even of the tried and true, and it takes a few moments to get into its grooves, but Leshnoff takes hold immediately and doesn’t let go. My first rather visceral reaction was like when I first heard the Gershwin piano concerto. This is nothing like Gershwin, but the sense of immediacy acts as a common thread to that old classic. When a piece ends, and you are sorry to see it go, you know you are on to something special, and this is definitely that. Joyce Yang, well known in many circles that care about modern quality pianism, plays with devotion and sparkle in a wonderful performance.
Michael Stern and his Kansas City forces are really on top of their game these days, the equal of almost any orchestra you hear, and play beautifully. The recoding geniuses at sound/mirror mirror back the sound in stunning sonics. Kudos all around for this one.
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