[Montecito Journal] Leshnoff’s Concerto Grosso for SB Symphony
By Steve Libowitz, Montecito Journal
Jonathan Leshnoff had never even heard of Nir Kabaretti when the Santa Barbara Symphony’s music director contacted him back in 2011 to ascertain if the composer would be interested in a commission to create a new work in celebration of the symphony’s 60th anniversary.
As Leshnoff recalls, they had a mutual friend who had recommended him to the conductor.
“Nir just contacted me out of the blue,” Leshnoff, who lives in Baltimore said over the phone earlier this week. “But the minute I first talked to him, I liked him right away. We just hit it off. We’ve had good discussions and lots of laughs over the phone and Skype ever since.”
No word on whether Kabaretti’s ebullience made its way into Leshnoff’s Concerto Grosso in the Baroque Style, a 15-to-20-minute work that will open this weekend’s pair of symphony concerts at the Granada. But the idea of honoring he orchestra’s principal players was the organizing theme for the new work.
“He said, ‘It’s the sixtieth anniversary. Why not honor the players? So when I thought about it, I thought it made sense to use the Old Baroque form, the concerto grosso that was popular in the days of Corelli and Handel. Where a regular concerto spotlights a solo instrument versus the orchestra, the grosso is a bunch of instruments. So it made sense to resurrect this form, which I don’t think has gotten a lot of new attention this century.”
Leshnoff, who said that as a child that he grabbed the crayons his parents gave him for color and used them as drumsticks, took up composition early in college. Classical icons Bach, Beethoven, Bartok and Stravinsky are among his musical heroes and he isn’t afraid to acknowledge their influence.
“Composing is an apprenticeship. In order to learn, you need to understand the masters. You don’t go rewriting the Fifth Symphony, but you look at his ingenious way of holding the piece together, stretching ideas, knowing when to break before it becomes monotonous, and how to use the harmonies. You look at what successful, take the time honored ideas and breathe new life into them, with ideas that are new but the structures that work. That’s my aesthetic.”
His Concerto Grosso offers focused attention opportunities to two violins, woodwinds, horn, trumpet, trombone and cello in its four movements. And while its difficult enough to compose a concerto for a soloist with whom you’re familiar and can bounce ideas off of, upping the ante to several players whom you’ve never met definitely raises the difficulty factor.
“I had no idea who was going to play the parts,” Leshnoff noted. “That really wasn’t possible here, because there are so many musicians, and I’m out here on the other coast. But I designed it because they’re not all playing every movement, I coudl get away with not having a close working relationship.”
Still, Leshnoff said he thought the new piece was both tailer-made for Santa Barbara and open to broader appeal.
“It’s specific because it’s very celebratory,” he said. “I take a much more happy and bright tone than I would on a typical symphony or concerto, which might be a lot more contemplative or dark. This bright, because its’ about a happy ocassion. But its’ also universal in that people liek to hear upbeat happy pieces. They like happy endings. We have enough tragedy and discomfort in the world. It’s a good thing to lift your spirits. It’s a win-win for everybody.”
Which has also been the case with Leshnoff’s well-regarded earlier compositions which include four strings quartets, two oratorios, seven concerti, trios, a string sextet, a symphony, and numerous solo and chamber works.
The Philadelphia Orchestra premiered his flute concerto with Robert Spano and Jeffrey Khaner; Carnegie Hall co-commissioned a song cycle for Jessica Riviera; and the new guitar concerto he’s working on for Manuel Barrueco was co-commissioned by the Baltimore and Asturias Symphonies.
And that doesn’t even count his duties as an associate professor at Towson University, where he carries a full course load. One wonders how he has time to write at all.
“I don’t have time. I have to make it. I get up very early and I work very hard. When I have a moment, I’m doing something with it. Like with this interview. I said it had to be at 1:15 because it’s when I would need a break from the guitar concerto. Then I’ll go back when we’re done.
“I cut down on distractions. Only my wife has my cell phone number. But I’m always home by seven for the family. And I never work at home. Otherwise you can get consumed.”