This weekend, Jaap van Zweden concludes his tenure as music director of the Dallas Symphony with performances of perhaps the most famous work in the orchestra’s repertoire: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. But there’s another piece on the program, a major world premiere of a new work written especially for the DSO. And there hangs a tale: How is a big new piece of classical music born?
The composer, Jonathan Leshnoff, describes writing for the DSO, for van Zweden and for a concert that ends with Beethoven as three “grand slam home run intimidation factors.” But he’s used to it. For some reason, multiple orchestras have already commissioned him to write pieces which were then played before the Ode to Joy.
“All I can say is thank goodness it’s me and then Beethoven, it’s not Beethoven and then me,” Leshnoff says with a deep, contagious laugh, before turning serious. “I had to write a piece that’s going to go beyond the concert, and true to myself and true to what I want to do. I’ve written the piece from my heart and I believe in it, and hopefully people will go places with it, internally, within their own selves.”
The piece is his Violin Concerto No. 2, written especially for the symphony’s concertmaster, Alexander Kerr. Leshnoff met Kerr at a rehearsal for one of his previous concertos and the rapport was immediate.
“I walked into the rehearsal and there was this guy playing the violin who blew me away,” he says.
Kerr felt similarly when he first heard Leshnoff’s music.
“I loved it," Kerr says. "There was something so soulful to it. To write something that has such simplicity, it’s almost taboo. It hit my gut. He cares about the soul. He wants to express something, and he wants the audience to feel it, to get it — not to intellectually get it but to viscerally get it. It’s emotionally accessible. You can feel what he’s trying to say without looking at a program note.”
Kerr planted the idea of a new Leshnoff concerto in the minds of Dallas Symphony administrators, and when it finally happened, the orchestra gave the composer carte blanche to write anything he wished. The result — finished ahead of schedule, a rarity in a world where many artists procrastinate right up to their deadlines — reflects Leshnoff’s longtime fascination with ancient Jewish mysticism.
“I love portraying these ethereal mystical thoughts, that are so old, in music,” Leshnoff explains.
Violin Concerto No. 2 is part of a series of 10 major orchestral works in which Leshnoff explores fundamental elements of ancient Jewish philosophy.
“When I go to the great, great beyond, I like to say that someone will be able to construct these 10 pieces," he says.
Leshnoff explains that in the process of creating something new, the creator needs a flash of inspiration.
"Only after that flash of inspiration comes the hard work of dissecting it and pulling it apart and rewriting," he says. "But this concept of getting a flash, when the entire story is embedded in one single thought, that is represented in Jewish thought in a concept called chochmah, which translates as ‘wisdom’ but is deeper than that, that the entire human embryo is in this one cell.”
Listen in the second movement of the concerto, written for the solo violinist, stringed instruments and harp only, for a musical representation of chochmah.
“This orchestra is reduced to very small means,” Leshnoff says, “and out of this, from two notes, these weeping somber notes, Alex is able to spin this melody.”
Knowledge of ancient Jewish thought is certainly not necessary to listen to the concerto.
“I might be concerned about Jewish spirituality, but it’s on a level which everyone can relate to,” Leshnoff says. “I want to reach people on a human level, one-to-one.”
Because his music is so immediately enjoyable and so nakedly emotional, classical critics have tried to pigeonhole Leshnoff at times, or describe him as a romantic. He doesn’t concern himself with labels.
“My credo is to take people on a journey," he says. "They want to call me romantic, fine. They want to call me this or that, fine, I don’t care. I have to be someone who opens the door for people who want to invest in the music, and take them somewhere. Where they go, that’s up to them. If they go to a happy place, if they go to a somber place, that’s up to them. But if I take my listeners on a journey, then I’ve done what I needed to do.”
Kerr, who first played through the piece with the composer last September and made some minor suggestions regarding matters of technique, is excited to help listeners along that journey.
“It’s such soulful, beautiful but also fun music,” he says.
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But Kerr has another journey to think about. The future of the concerto lies partly in his hands. He thinks it’s a great work, one that deserves to be played by legendary violinists like Hilary Hahn and Gil Shaham. In order for Leshnoff’s new piece to reach that recognition, Kerr says his work continues after this weekend’s performances.
“I’m gonna suggest it to every orchestra I know and every conductor I know," Kerr says. "I will suggest it to other violinists, I’ll say, 'You should play this piece, it’s very special.'”
By implication, listeners should hear it, for the same reason.