Thursday, May 17, 2012

Perfect Pictures: Leshnoff's "Starburst"

This weekend marks the last Masterworks concert of the Harrisburg Symphony’s current season when Stuart Malina conducts the orchestra and guest violinist Karen Gomyo makes a return appearance playing Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1st Violin Concerto. The program opens with a recent work by young American composer Jonathan Leshnoff (see photo, left) and concludes with one of those great sonic experiences: Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

The concerts are Saturday night at 8pm and Sunday afternoon at 3pm in the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. Stuart Malina will also be giving the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance.

Unfortunately, Stuart’s schedule turned out to be more hectic than usual between concerts, so we were never able to find time to sit down and chat about the program.

But I remember two, maybe almost three years ago, when I would ask Stuart about, say, Jennifer Higdon’s just premiered Violin Concerto, he was asking me if I’d heard anything by Jonathan Leshnoff. I said “No, I’m not familiar with his name.” Then Stuart began a very enthusiastic description of the music he’d found.

I figured it wouldn’t be long till we’d hear something by Leshnoff on a Harrisburg Symphony program.

So this concert will begin with Leshnoff’s “Starburst,” a work the Baltimore Symphony premiered in the spring of 2010.

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“Co-commissioned by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Kansas Symphony Orchestra and the Fundación Orquesta de Extremadura (Spain), Jonathan Leshnoff’s Starburst receives its world premiere at these concerts. An associate professor of music at Towson University and a composer-in-residence with the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, Leshnoff is also a graduate of Johns Hopkins, the Peabody Institute and the University of Maryland. His energetic Starburst begins with a lively rhythm in the upper woodwinds and strings, and as the title implies, builds upon the excitement and vigor from the orchestra, before ending with an exhilarating musical explosion.” – the Baltimore Symphony website
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With its performance in Kansas City to start their 2010-2011 Season, the composer was interviewed by the city’s on-line journal of the Arts, You can read the interview here.

Just two quotes: Regarding critics’ comments about it being “intensely driven” and “full of energy and anticipation,” Leshnoff responded, “Energy-filled music was exactly the idea I wanted to convey.”

Concerning many people’s feeling that “new music” is often hard to understand on first hearing, he said, “I try to bring some centricity to music. I write what I want to hear. A lot of people enjoy my orchestration and harmony. I want to connect with the audience so they enjoy my music, too.”

Two recordings on the Naxos label feature works by Jonathan Leshnoff, including his Symphony No. 1, a violin concerto, a string quartet and the Double Concerto for Violin and Viola.

When I had a fly-by encounter with Stuart after last Sunday’s Youth Orchestra program (his daughter is, by the way, principal cellist of the Junior String Orchestra) – he was home briefly between conducting Porgy and Bess in Delaware last week and concerts earlier this week in Florida – he mentioned that Jonathan will be in town for the performance and joining him for the post-concert talk-back chat (if you’re not familiar with these, it’s really worth hanging around after the performance, if for no other reason than to let the traffic clear out a bit).

Stuart also mentioned he feels Leshnoff’s music is in much the same vein as Jennifer Higdon’s – direct and appealing (without pandering). Pointing out that Higdon (whose Blue Cathedral and "Percussion Concerto" were performed here to considerable popular acclaim) and Kevin Puts (whose 2nd Symphony was well received here two years ago) have gone on to win Pulitzer Prizes in music since then, the closest thing along with Grammys that classical musicians in this country receive that's close to national recognition, he expects similar good things to be happening in Leshnoff’s career.

Smiling, he concluded, “It’s always nice to know you’re backing a winning horse!” And then, giving me a hearty thumbs-up, he waved and rushed off.

- Dick Strawser

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