[Scene Magazine] Giving the Clarinet Some Orchestral Love
SB Symphony Premieres Clarinet Concerto By Young Composer Jonathan Leshnoff
By Josef Woodard, News-Press Correspondent
When last it convened, two weeks back, the Santa Barbara Symphony was busy entertaining an all-ages crowd to the tune and classic visuals of Disney’s “Fantasia,” with its idealistic blend of animation and classical music jukebox hit parade. This weekend’s model of a program is of another ilk entirely, a program in which the Austrian-American symphonic imprint of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony and Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3 play second fiddle, in a sense, to the main event of the package—the West Coast Premiere of noted and notably lyrical composer Jonathan Leshnoff’s new Clarinet Concerto.
From an organizational perspective, which casts positive light on our orchestra, the new piece was made possible by a co-commission from the Santa Barbara Symphony and one of America’s, and the world’s, great ensembles, the Philadelphia Orchestra. The symphony’s own considerable principal clarinetist, Donald Foster—no stranger to the soloist spotlight at the Granada Theatre—will do the soloist honors for the new Leshnoff work.
It’s fitting that Mr. Leshnoff’s piece is on the same bill with Copland’s 3rd Symphony, which contains the anthemic “Fanfare for a Common Man” melodic motif. Copland is one of the prime influences on Mr. Leshnoff, whose already impressive resume was fortified by four important orchestral premieres last season—his own Symphony No. 3, the oratorio “Zohar” and a Kansas City Symphony—commissioned work celebrating 100 years since America got involved with WWI. The fourth major premiere: his Clarinet Concerto, by the Philadelphia Orchestra in April.
Cut to this weekend’s West Coast premiere at The Granada, and the Leshnoff story continues, with a local imprimatur. The News-Press recently touched base with the composer, who first interacted with the Santa Barbara Symphony in 2013. As part of that year’s 60th anniversary of the symphony, the orchestra commissioned Mr. Leshnoff’s “Concerto Grosso,” in a Baroque style. He comments that “Nir Kabaretti, the conductor, is a close friend of mine. We are on the same musical wavelength in addition to sharing aesthetic goals and he’s a great friend of mine.”
New-Press: Can you tell me about the considerations and process of writing your Clarinet Concerto? Were there any particular concepts or stylistic ideas feeding into the piece from the outset, and did the nature of the piece change or evolve as you delved into it?
Jonathan Leshnoff: Let me preface by saying my compositional thought these days is Jewish mystical themes and their expressions. This is a project that I have been consciously doing since 2012/2013. It fits squarely in a multi-year meta-project that I am involved with. I attached the program notes that specifically speak out to the Jewish mystical themes the concerto refers to.
NP: Clarinet is one of those instruments in the orchestra family not often given spotlight moments in a concerto format. Do you have any particular attraction or connection to clarinet, or to clarinet concertos of the past, such as Copland's?
JL: I find the clarinet to be a very special instrument whereas the violin or piano, the musician has the music come out of themselves and has to go to a vessel outside of their own body to express the music which flows without them. This is unlike the clarinet where the music is connected to the person and comes out through their breath.
As such, I find the clarinet to be a very intimate instrument that can really express the musician’s intent with no barrier because he instrument is connected right to the musician’s self.
NP: You have composed in many different formats, large and small, orchestra and chamber-wise. Is there a context you feel more comfortable in, or does the variety of tasks fulfill and challenge you as an artist?
JL: Indeed, my catalogue ranges from solos and duos to oratorios. Lately, I’ve been blessed with many orchestral commissions, so writing orchestral music has become more and more comfortable. I’ve discovered beautiful nuances in the ways the orchestra works. I consider the orchestra to be mans’ greatest invention. There are so many nuances and subtleties and technical idiosyncrasies of an orchestra that are so fascinating to explore.
I am working on my fourth symphony, and I’ve written 10 concerti and several other standalone orchestral pieces, so certainly, orchestra is something that is very comfortable for me to do right now. However, I do have to say that chamber music is close to my heart. I have four string quartets and a lot of other chamber music. I find that every time I’m given a chamber commission, I have to re-invent the alphabet for that piece.
For example, I just finished a piece for horn, violin and piano (commonly referred to as the Brahms trio) and just conceiving that piece took three to four months to wrap my head around the ensemble. Once I get the concept of what the ensemble is, what it can do and its strong points, then I can actually start the process of writing.
NP: The Clarinet Concerto is a co-commission with the Santa Barbara and Philadelphia Orchestra. Is that an example of the resourcefulness and consortium efforts which have made contemporary orchestral music possible and alive?
JL: Indeed, the Clarinet Concerto is a co-commission between the Philadelphia Orchestra, who was the principal commissioner, and the Santa Barbara Symphony, who is the co-commissioner. In addition to having the piece available in piano and clarinet format, I have recently arranged the composition for symphonic winds. A consortium of bands has gotten together to co-commission this new arrangement as well as perform it. Some of these bands are quite well known such as the President’s own United States Army Band, the Navy Band, Air Force Band, and the University of Miami Frost Wind Ensemble.
Indeed, to have a work in multiple formats is wonderful. Obviously there’d be a lot more play of it, but what’s so exciting for me as a composer is that it forces me to re-think. The substrate of the composition each time I make a new arrangement. For example, from when I went from an orchestral arrangement to winds, the strings would have a sustained piano chord, it would make me really think through how I could transfer that gesture, that larger musical idea from the orchestra to the band. It required a complete re-thinking process, even though the notes stayed the same.
NP: Looking over your musical life thus far, has life as a composer developed in ways that have surprised you, relative to what you expected when you made the decision to go into this life and creative world?
JL: Speaking broadly, as I’ve hit my 40s, my focus and musical mission has become clear to me. In my younger years, I would write things that I thought were fun or moving. As I get older, I realize my role as a composer is to be a conduit, to take people on a journey.
People have heard me say this a million times and I will say it until I’m blue in the face. If you keep saying it enough, people will believe you. Where they go on this journey inside their soul, to a dark place, a happy place, a fond memory…that’s up to them. But as long as I take people somewhere, I know that I’ve done my job as a composer.