If Pikesville-based composer Jonathan Leshnoff hasn’t taken you on a experiential journey while you’re listening to his music, he hasn’t done his job.
Or so he contends in the liner notes to his recently released album containing world premiere recordings of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus performing his “Symphony No. 2” and “Zohar.”
Both pieces were inspired by the deep, abiding religious conviction of Leshnoff, an Orthodox Jew who The Washington Post referred to as “clearly one of the more gifted young American composers around” in 2013.
Leshnoff received his Ph.D. in composition from the University of Maryland in 2000 after undergraduate studies at the Peabody Institute and Johns Hopkins University, where he studied both composition and anthropology. He has been a professor at Towson University since 2001.
“I’m originally from a little suburb of New York called New Jersey,” Leshnoff said with a laugh.
“I moved to Baltimore 25 years ago for school and never left. Towson has been very supportive, I really enjoy the students here, and the Baltimore community has been a great match for my family.”
Though Leshnoff said he grew up observing Conservative Judaism, after his time at Johns Hopkins, he left a “different person” due to his deeper investment into Judaism.
“I like to say I entered Hopkins without a yarmulke on my head and left with it on,” as Leshnoff summarized his transition into practicing Orthodox Judaism, which has become a linchpin for both his personal and professional life.
Although Leshnoff has been so observant for nearly as long as he’s lived in Baltimore, he experienced an inner struggle with being able to express what he felt was a substantial overlap between his Jewish studies and musical passion.
“The soul of this was not able to express itself until just recently,” Leshnoff said.
It was only a few years ago that Leshnoff realized music and Judaism are not only directly related, but indeed are not separate entities.
“Spirituality is in touch with something that is not audible, and music is also connected to something that is not audible,” Leshnoff said, well aware that the latter component of his revelatory formulation may not make sense at first blush.
He elaborated that it’s perfectly salient when one thinks of how we not only hear music, but feel and experience it as well, each of us on a different level and through our own individual mindset.
There’s an affinity here with how one subjectively experiences his or her spirituality, leading Leshnoff to believe he was ready to put pen to paper and create his musical scores, including “Zohar,” which takes its name from the primary text of the Kabbalah.
“It wasn’t a collision [of Judaism with music] but a collusion,” Leshnoff said. “‘Integration’ is the word I like to use.”
The two aforementioned works on his new release are in fact part of a “10-piece multiyear meta-project that parallels the fundamental building blocks of Jewish spiritual thought.”
Both “Symphony No. 2” and “Zohar” were commissioned by the ASO and Robert Spano, who has been the prestigious orchestra’s music director since 2000.
Spano first became aware of Leshnoff through an artistic form of kismet bordering on beshert.
In 2001, an orchestra in Philadelphia was readying to perform Leshnoff’s flute concerto when the conductor turned out to be too sick to attend.
“There was a whole rush of flurry,” Leshnoff said. “Who’s going to conduct? Who’s going to conduct?”
The ASO’s Spano was brought in at such a last minute that he had to learn the entire concerto on the plane flying into Philly. This, without ever having heard it performed.
“He comes in at 10 a.m. to rehearse, then conducts the performance from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. the same day,” Leshnoff said, with a still resonating astonishment in his voice.
The performance received a terrific response, Leshnoff continued, with the composer joining the orchestra members and Spano onstage for a well-deserved bow.
Leshnoff laughed that when Spano and he were stepping toward the green room, the latter asked Leshnoff, “Wait, who are you?”
The two became fast friends and regular collaborators from that moment onward. Spano has, in fact, not only conducted Leshnoff’s works (including those on the latest album), but he performed a Leshnoff piano piece at no less than Carnegie Hall.
“I’m so grateful for him,” Leshnoff said. “You can’t learn a piece on a plane a few hours before the performance without getting it intuitively. He really gets it.”
ASO’s vice president for artistic planning and operations Evans Mirageas well remembers when Spano came back “glowing” from performing and conducting Leshnoff’s work.
“He told us, ‘We need to play those pieces, and we need to commission him,’” Mirageas said.
Mirageas spoke with Leshnoff who declared that he wanted to write a big symphony, to which the former enthusiastically replied, “OK! Write us a big symphony!”
The ASO would go on to premiere “Symphony No. 2” in Atlanta in fall 2015, with “Zohar” being performed at Carnegie Hall to mark the 100th birthday of internationally acclaimed musician and former ASO music director Robert Shaw on April 30, 2016.
“That was the highlight of my musical life,” Leshnoff recalled.
Mirageas revealed that the ASO is already speaking with Leshnoff about writing something for the organization’s 75th anniversary in 2020.
“We want to continue working with Jonathan,” Mirageas said. “We just want to find the right subject, and knowing Jonathan’s fertile imagination, that topic will appear.”