Composing Music in a Time of Crisis
An Interview with Jonathan Leshnoff

On April 19, 1995, a bomb was detonated at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in the United States, killing 168 people and injuring a over six hundred more. It remains the deadliest domestic terrorist incident in US history and the second deadliest overall after the September 11 attacks. To mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the atrocity, Alexander Mickelthwate, the Music Director of the Oklahoma Philharmonic Orchestra, approached Jonathan Leshnoff after hearing his Fourth Symphony ‘Heichalos’ and asked if he would compose a work to honour the occasion. Following his interview with MusicWeb International in 2021 and to mark this new release by Naxos containing the premiere recording of the work, Jonathan Leshnoff talks once more to Lee Denham.

LD: I remember in a previous conversation you telling me about this commission [from Oklahoma] and thinking not only must it had been a tremendous honour to receive it, but also one that bore a significant sense of responsibility.

JL: Yes, you are right. This was a unique piece for me, as I was writing about something terrible that had happened and not just that, but it was also to be premiered by and to the people in the community where it happened. I could not help but think that many of these people may not just have memories of that day, but could also have been caught up in them. I remember when I was composing the piece constantly asking myself, “Am I qualified to do this?”, or even, “Do I have the right to do this?” 

LD: I can understand that. Would you be able to talk about the composition process? I mean how can you represent something as terrible as that musically?

JL: I was indeed struggling with that very problem at first. I received an initial email from the conductor Alexander Mickelthwate, a most wonderful musical collaborator, who basically shared own his ideas on what the piece could be like. He suggested that he imagined a work, possibly for orchestra and chorus “that transcends the atrocity and focuses on all the good that came out of it in the last twenty-five years. A city growing together. But also transcending death. To the point where in this bizarre world, music actually unifies and makes the listener step out of the crazy into a spiritual sphere. Where the spiritual becomes reality and the other just a dream”. It was merely sharing an idea, rather than a set of instructions, but it was just what I needed and I found it incredibly inspiring. So out of his words a piece formed in my mind, of an initial sustained section of pain and fear represented by the orchestra only, followed by an epilogue where the orchestra is joined by a chorus. I struggled for a long time to think of the appropriate words for the choral part, but eventually settled upon using the American hymn My Country, ’Tis of Thee, particularly with its words about freedom and liberty.

LD: The premiere must have been a unique moment for you.

JL: Yes, it was. I didn’t know they were going to do this, but the orchestra and chorus were all dressed in white for that performance in Oklahoma, with the aim of symbolising a kind of ‘cleansing’, ‘hope’ or even ‘purity’. I had a feeling that I was taking part in something where people were all coming together to stand for social justice.

LD: I would like to talk with you about the composition in a little more detail. Over the twenty-two minutes of the piece, which can roughly be divided into two parts, I noticed how you ‘interrupted’ the orchestral mayhem of the first half with a moment of repose, a hint of the choral finale to come. What was the idea behind that?

JL: Correct. When I was working on the composition, I felt that to have a first part of several minutes of music which is jarring and descriptive of terror, followed by an uplifting ending, would have been too ‘convenient’. So that moment of repose, at around of five or six minutes into the piece, was to signpost the listener, to give a sense that we need to work through this turmoil to find a resolution. Structurally, that brief repose section allowed me to subsequently continue the jarring music at a higher level of intensity until the peaceful entrance of the choir.

LD: Can I talk to you about how you as a composer try to represent fear and terror in music? I am also thinking of your Third Symphony here, where one of its central movements depicts the horror of trench warfare during the 1914-1918 war. You strike me as a composer who consciously avoids using dissonance to conjure up these musical images…

JL: Yes, that’s right. The challenge I set myself is to always represent things in dimensions of music,

such as harmony, rhythm, texture and orchestration. You are correct in your reference to my Third Symphony in which I chose to depict quite dark images through harmony. In Of Thee I Sing, I strive to achieve the images of fear and terror rhythmically, by juxtaposing rhythmic ideas which diverge from where you may expect a downbeat, thereby tapping into the nerve of the listener by changing the patterns unexpectedly. Or I may alter the underlying pulse with differing accents. I choose to portray that ‘pain’ and ‘fear’ by challenging rhythmic patterns rather than knotty and gnarly orchestral sonorities. 

LD: It seems strange talking about a “new” work of yours in 2023 that was premiered in 2020, as with Of thee I sing and yet on this new Naxos release there is an even earlier work from 2017, the Violin Concerto – your Second, I believe?

JL: Yes, that’s right – although there is my Chamber Concerto for Violin and Strings, so it is kind of Second-and-a-half! 

LD: I remember when I first heard it that it sounded very “American”. I fancied I could hear the shades of Copland and Bernstein behind the notes…

JL: Funnily enough that is what Alexander Mickelthwate, the conductor on this recording, said too – and he is German, born in Munich. It’s strange, as I wasn’t consciously intending that during the composition process, although I can understand why people think it, as there is a lot of syncopation and a lot of energy. As we have just discussed, one of the things which continues to fascinate me as a composer is having these consistently shifting rhythmic patterns. I think as I mature in my compositional skills, I am becoming better at making these become not just unpredictable, but also presented within an overarching unified structure and learning how to be a bit more sophisticated with these subtle syncopations and interlocking of these rhythmic ideas. I think you can hear this particularly well in my new Violin Concerto, particularly at the end.

LD: This isn’t the case with the slow movement, though.

JL: Indeed – the slow movement is very serene in contrast. With this movement, I tried to incorporate ideas of Jewish mysticism, which spells out ten ‘spiritual’ building blocks, representing a kind of bridge from where the Divine reaches out to humanity and humanity can reach the Divine via a bridge to the Infinite. High up on this chain is this thing called Chokhmah which I can broadly equate to ‘inspiration’. It is something I may experience in the compositional process, where I may suddenly hit upon a certain melody or rhythmic pattern that I had been searching for – it’s a bit like stumbling upon a brilliant idea or solution to a problem that had been challenging me. This is then followed by the next stage which is Binah, where I have to work through this idea – for me, this would be the equivalent of writing the melody into the score and devising its counterpoint. With my music, there was a lot of Binah in the first movement of my last symphony [No. 4], which is why it was so gnarly and gritty. However, in this Violin Concerto the Chokhmah portrayal occurs in its slow movement, like a subdued burst of inspiration, where I present a very clear and almost transparent idea in lean lines and slow rhythm, essentially reducing down the kernel idea to its simplest essence. The orchestration is reduced to just strings, harp and solo violin. I wanted the music to be translucent and this moment to be represented by a clarity, as if an idea has fallen from above. I actually annotate this ‘singing’ instruction in the score. We are fortunate in having Noah [Bendix-Balgley– one of the Concert Masters of the Berlin Philharmonic] for the recording, as he did this especially well.

LD: The other work on this new album is Elegy, which had its premiere only last year and calls for unusual forces of string orchestra with the addition of harp, timpani, as well as four horns.

JL: Yes; it was commissioned by the Music Director of the Bellingham Symphony Orchestra, Yaniv Attar, as part of his program called ‘Harmony from Discord’, which focuses on music written about oppression and this piece is representative of the oppression of the Holocaust. I have to say that I am very much indebted to Maestro Attar, not just in asking me to compose the work in the first place, but also since as being a commissioner he has the exclusive right under contract to record the piece first for the initial year after the premiere, which he very generously ceded to the Oklahoma Philharmonic, allowing them to both perform and record it only three weeks after his own premiere for this new release. 

As for the work, I wanted to write something that could standalone and be performed as part of the long line of pieces written in memoriam, in which you could include Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. You mentioned the orchestration and with a work like this, I did not want the brightness of the winds or the presence of the brass, but felt the nature of the music required the unique colourings of French horns. This is because horns have an almost ‘rounded’ sound, since they are conical in shape, as opposed to the more cylindrical presentation of a trumpet with, as a consequence, a more penetrating sound. For example, when I compose for a full orchestra, I need to balance one trumpet with two horns and so I wanted to capitalise on the darker and more melancholic nature of the horns, which I felt was appropriate in music like this.

LD: I have to say that when listening to the new album, the sheer variety of music, from the sparkle of the Violin Concerto, the sombreness of the Elegy, as well as the final uplifting from Of thee I sing make an especially satisfying listening experience and one I hope many of MWI’s readers will explore. 

JL: Thank you – I appreciate that.

LD: May I now talk to you briefly about new works you are working on that haven’t been recorded yet? Last time we spoke you told us that the premiere of your oratorio, The Sacrifice of Isaac, had been postponed due to Covid restrictions at the time. 

JL: Indeed! The premiere of Sacrifice of Isaac was pushed off from 2021 to May of 2024 because of Covid. But fortunately the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra will premiere The Sacrifice of Isaac in May of 2024, one of three ensembles who have co-commissioned it. It, which is scheduled to be commercially recorded too. In waiting for the premiere of Sacrifice of Isaac, I have actually completed another oratorio; it is called Saul, based upon the story of King Saul from the Old Testament and that is due to be premiered in April of 2024 by my good friend Stuart Malina and the Harrisburg Symphony.

LD: Any chance of a Fifth Symphony?

JL: Yes, there is – although I am slightly daunted at the thought of writing it.

LD: Will it be in C Minor, Jonathan? [In our previous conversation, Jonathan had revealed that the piece which inspired his lifelong interest in music was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony]

JL: Ah, well, let’s wait and see. Actually, what happened was I have been approached by an orchestra who asked if I could choose to write any piece of music for them, what would it be? And without thinking I, of course, said a symphony! So now discussions are ongoing and the reality of having to write another symphony – and a “Fifth”, one with all the implications that comes with it – is beginning to dawn on me.

LD: How will you feel then if you are ever commissioned to compose a Ninth Symphony?

JL: Well, I like to call that a “longevity” work – I will be pleased just to get there and still be composing. This summer too, Gil Shaham and Robert Spano are also going to premiere my Violin Sonata, a work that is very personal to me and one that I am also intending to orchestrate so that it eventually becomes my Third Violin Concerto.

LD: Could we talk about that, Jonathan – it was dedicated to your late father, wasn’t it?

JL: Yes. Well, the background to it was that my good friends, the conductor Robert Spano and the violinist Gil Shaham, had been asking me to write them a Violin Sonata for quite a while, but I had never quite got around to starting it. Then last year my father, who had always tried to lead a life of kindness and decency, but had suffered terribly from much ill health and pain during his final few years, took a turn for the worse and suddenly composing this Violin Sonata became my way of coping. Unusually for me, it became almost an all-consuming activity, as I could not look at other commissions or edit other works that were due to be performed as the sonata was taking up all of my creative energy. It starts very sparsely, almost a single line each for both violin and piano, which I feel represents the remorse I was feeling at a time when I was travelling back and forth between my family here in Baltimore and my parents’ home in Philadelphia to visit my now very sick father. Then, almost a year ago now, when most of that first movement had been completed, my mother telephoned me and told me that my father was, unusually, up and about, plus was able to communicate a little, although it took most of his energy to just gives a thumbs-up in acknowledgement of anything you said to him. So I said to him: “Dad, I am writing a violin sonata – would you like to hear it?” and my mum told me he gave a thumbs-up. What he didn’t know however, that I was writing this piece that I knew would be in his memory, as it was very clear to everyone at that point that he was approaching his end. And then with me on speaker-phone and my mother holding the phone up for him, I was able to perform all the virtually completed first movement, the music that I knew would be immortalising him. At the end, I asked him: “What do you think, Dad?” and my mother told me he had put both his thumbs up. So now, on the front page of the sonata it is printed: ‘In memory of my dear father, Steven Leshnoff, written for and lovingly dedicated to Gil Shaham and Robert Spano.’ This means a lot to me, as I am able to honour not just the memory of my now late father, but also my friendship with the performers. Of course, to me, the piece has a very special aura, for the first movement is very Shostakovich-like, in as much as it starts very sparsely and then grows out, before receding back into nothingness again, while the second movement is quite fiery, before the third and final movement is very sustained, but in brighter and lighter colours than what has gone before, with the idea that my father’s soul is now at peace and free from pain at last. Indeed, on the final page of the score (as yet, unpublished) I write the instructions: ‘Like a dream. Finally at peace’, so the work ends in resolution. 

LD: I’m not sure if there is anything more we can talk about that can be as moving as that so, Jonathan Leshnoff, thank you very much and on behalf of myself and all of MWI’s readers, good luck with the forthcoming premieres.

The new album by Jonathan Leshnoff on Naxos can be purchased at Presto Classical and Amazon UK, and is reviewed here.

Reviews on MWI
Starburst (2010) review
Guitar Concerto (2013) review
Four Dances for String Quartet (2014) review
Symphony No. 3 (2015) review
Symphony No. 4, “Heichalos” (2017) review
Double Concerto for Clarinet and Bassoon (2018) review review
Piano Concerto (2019) review

List of Compositions