Review: ASO previews its next recording with commissioned new work by Jonathan Leshnoff

Robert Spano and the ASO will debut another new work by Leshnoff in April in concerts in Atlanta and at Carnegie Hall.
Robert Spano and the ASO will debut another new work by Leshnoff in April in concerts in Atlanta and at Carnegie Hall.
Robert Spano and the ASO will debut another new work by Leshnoff in April in concerts in Atlanta and at Carnegie Hall.
Robert Spano and the ASO will debut another new work by Leshnoff in April in concerts in Atlanta and at Carnegie Hall.

This past Thursday, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed a concert of music by Leshnoff and Beethoven, led by music director Robert Spano, at Symphony Hall. It was repeated there on Saturday.

The program opened with the world premiere of Symphony No. 2 by Jonathan Leshnoff, commissioned by the ASO. It was originally scheduled to premiere last November but due to the ASO lockout, those plans were nixed and it was rescheduled.

The piece demands some back story due to its highly specific programmatic nature. It was inspired by the book Inner Space, a detailed series of transcribed lectures by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, a prolific exponent of Jewish thought. The book’s subtitle, Introduction to Kabbalah, Meditation and Prophecy lends itself the meditative-ecstatic tradition of Kabbalah which strives to achieve mystical union with “G-d.”

Leshnoff draws specifically upon the teaching of the Alamos, the Five Worlds or Universes, for the structure of the symphony and the character of each movement. These Universes are the “garments” of the Ein Sof (God prior to his self-manifestation). They are the spiritual realms in the descending chain of existence through which the emanation of creative life force is progressively diminished, allowing creation to exist. 

Composer Jonathan Leshnoff
Composer Jonathan Leshnoff

In his symphony, Leshnoff begins with the lowest level, the Universe of Action, where creation is complete and the divine vitality is most concealed, working his way up to the Universe of Adam Kadmon (primordial or original Man).

The first movement was short — with fanfare-ish, ringing brass chords — and led to a ferocious, quick-paced second movement. The slower third movement proved the symphony’s musical apex with its Mahlerian scope of dynamics and expression, opening and closing with subdued episodes for harp and strings. 

The fourth movement picked up a fast tempo again in restless agitation, but came to a sudden Largo that led to the final movement, where the work’s philosophical goal was found in an extended, unmeasured silence marked “Unimaginable” — well suited to the Adam Kadmon, unmeasurable and limitless.

Although the duration of this concluding temporal void could ideally be “forever,” in the real world of orchestral performance, it was necessarily of a limited duration. The length of the silence was determined by Spano, who held up his left hand to indicate continuation, then slowly lowered it to his side. And then came that tell-tale shuffle of relaxing the body, which told both orchestra and audience that it was over. It will be interesting to see how that is all realized on disc in a planned recording — perhaps as its own silent track

The audience gave Leshnoff and his music a warm, if surprisingly brief, ovation, which strangely seemed both welcoming and perfunctory.

Nevertheless, Leshnoff’s composing career is currently on a roll with a total of five major premieres this season. Besides his Symphony No. 2, Gil Shaham and The Knights chamber orchestra will premiere Leshnoff’s Chamber Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in Baltimore on February 14. A few days later, he will bring the work to Atlanta for a performance at Emerson Hall inside the Schwartz Center For Performing Arts.

Two premieres will take place the week of April 14-16, in direct conflict with each other. The Philadelphia Orchestra will premiere his Clarinet Concerto with its principal clarinetist Ricardo Morales as soloist. That same Thursday and Saturday, Spano will lead the ASO and Chorus in the premiere of Leshnoff’s oratorio “Zohar,” a work co-commissioned by the ASO and Carnegie Hall for the Robert Shaw centenary celebrations. The ASO will again perform “Zohar” at Carnegie Hall on April 30, Shaw’s birthday, along with Brahms’ “Ein deutsches Requiem.”

Finally, in May, Leshnoff’s Symphony No. 3 will be premiered by the Kansas City Symphony to commemorate the 100th anniversary of America’s entrance into World War I.

After intermission, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 served extremely well as the second half of the concert. The ASO last performed it April 10, 2014, with Donald Runnicles at the helm. This time, it was Spano’s turn to lead this grand exponent of the symphonic literature, which made a great foil for the Leshnoff.

Though hardly out of the mainstream, Spano and the ASO gave it a vital performance with a bit of personal touch, rousing the audience to enthusiastic response.

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