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Classical Music

With the End of Jaap van Zweden’s Reign Over the DSO Comes a World Premiere Beginning

Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is a goodbye to an era, but a new work by Jonathan Leshnoff steeped in Jewish mysticism heralds the future.
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Conductor Jaap van Zweden’s last concerts with the DSO, running this weekend, feature Beethoven’s lush Ninth Symphony, hailed as the “ultimate” symphony. It’s the composer’s own ultimate symphony—as in, final. It’s the only choral symphony he composed. The Dallas Symphony Chorus will animate the fourth movement with a quartet of internationally acclaimed soloists including Matthias Goerne, a smooth baritone, and DSO artist in residence Michelle DeYoung, a warm, grounded mezzo.

Just as exciting: a world premiere by Jonathan Leshnoff, the New Jersey-born, Baltimore-based composer of symphonies, oratorios, concerti, and chamber works, whose much-lauded personal, distinctive style incorporates Jewish mysticism. The sinewy piece is structurally and harmonically complex, a striking example of a living composer and virtuosic soloist working together.

The kernel of the Violin Concerto No. 2, co-commissioned by the DSO and featuring concertmaster Alexander Kerr as soloist, was a 2015 Harrisburg Symphony performance of Leshnoff’s Double Concerto for violin and viola.

“When I met [Leshnoff], I was playing the Double Concerto,” Kerr says. “And I loved the piece.” The violinist was struck by the work’s beauty and the compositional force behind it, which he saw as “just so individualistic.”

“[Leshnoff] is unabashedly himself. Unapologetic about being soulful. About being tonally beautiful. About writing music that he believes in. And I love that about him. If classical music is going to survive into the next century, people are going to have to have their own voice. He’s one of those,” Kerr says.

Meanwhile, Leshnoff mirrored the reaction of professional respect. “’The [Harrisburg] conductor just said, ‘I have someone really good playing the violin part,’” Leshnoff recalls. “I walked in, and it was Alex [Kerr],” whom he describes as “monstrous in technique and so sensitive in his phrasing, with just this wonderful sound.” They met and talked after the performance. And so emerged the idea of the piece that will debut tonight.

“A concerto is a major work for one person,” Leshnoff says—ever toeing the line between tailored virtuosic expression and a played life as a musical work that must reach into the future. In its intimacy of collaboration, then, this concerto, can be seen as one version of an “ultimate” concerto. And so I find it fitting that it should fill this spot, in this program—an “ultimate” to match another.

The slow second movement is in many ways the work’s focal point. It incorporates the foundational principles of Jewish mysticism as one installment of a ten-work project Leshnoff has been developing over five years, seeding each of his major works with one movement that unfolds a single element. If they are all played together, they might evoke or distill musically the spiritual framework seen as the base of the universe.

The attribute represented by the Hebrew letter chochma, this concerto’s principle, “roughly translates to wisdom,” Leshnoff says—and also genesis, the flash of inspiration from which all else comes. (“In that one flash second, it all comes together,” he says.) In terms of instrumentation, he has translated the idea of something coming from nothing via the second movement’s aggressive minimalism. From a simplicity of background—“Just sparse lines of strings and repeated chords, with a bit of harp at the end,” Leshnoff says—the soloist emerges.

“The second movement is so soulful,” says Kerr. “This feeling of eternal wisdom from which springs everything else—it hits you in the stomach.”

“The thing that really struck me was especially the inner movements,” he continues. The outer movements—first and fourth—meanwhile, are full of energy.

When I spoke with composer and soloist on Tuesday, they were still making minor changes to the piece that will ultimately only be set in stone once it’s played. Both comment on the privilege of knotting this kind of collaboration. Kerr shaped Leshnoff’s work. “Listening to [his playing], you get swept in,” the composer said, trying to gesture at Kerr’s style. “So the opening motif of this composition is very sweeping, broad, lyrical. I also know he’s a technical wizard, so in the third movement, there’s lots of wizardry and [technical] pyrotechnics.”

Meanwhile, “You’re taking something that was in your friend’s mind and you’re being the living exponent of it,” Kerr says of playing a piece composed for you as a premiere. Like the first actor to perform a Shakespeare play once it had been penned. “’To be or not to be.’ The first person to utter it.”

Kerr also spurred the commissioning of a horn trio from Leshnoff, which is slated to debut next year.

It’s moving to consider the text messages Kerr sent to Leshnoff alerting him to the advent of the unborn work, for which Van Zweden had selected this final-concert spot:

“Dallas will do your concerto. With Beethoven’s Ninth. And it’s Jaap’s last concert. You see?”

Van Zweden leaves the DSO for the New York Philharmonic after taking what Peter Simek called a “victory lap” this year with a distinctive season.

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