• Leshnoff Crafts Ethereal Music for Violins of Hope Project


    Leshnoff: Symphony #4; Guitar Concerto
    Jason Vieaux, guitar.  Nashville Symphony Orchestra/Giancarlo Guerrero
    Naxos 8.559809
    Total Time:  55:04
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    The Nashville Symphony has become one of Naxos’ go-to orchestras for recordings of American music.  Under its Music Director Giancarlo Guerrero they have brought to light a number of new voices in orchestral writing along to a broader audience.  In this new release, audiences are introduced to the work of Jonathan Leshnoff (b. 1973) who teaches at Townson University in Maryland.  His orchestral music has been lauded for its lyricism and harmonic writing as well as its engaging thematic material.  Three works are featured on this album.

    The Symphony No. 4, “Heichalos” (2017) was commissioned by the Nashville Symphony’s Violins of Hope Project.  These are violins that were played by Jewish musicians in concentration camps during the Holocaust and have been restored.  On a broader level, they become a symbol for survival.  The subtitle for the symphony refers to the theological concept of rooms in the mystical text Heichalos Rabbasai.  It is a collection of texts that instruct how to mystical encounters that lead to an encounter with the Divine.  Leshnoff uses this concept to create a musical journey set in two parts.  The first opens with an ascending motive that gives way to a propulsive and driving section that then continues to build towards huge chordal punctuations as the music scurries forward.  Harmonically the music tends to be in an expanded traditional style with the motive serving to expand into a thematic thread that becomes varied as the piece progresses.  From this rather scherzo-like opening, we move to part 2 which explores a variety of beautiful sonorities.  Here Leshnoff adds harp and other percussion.  Some might find parallels with the Mahler “Adagietto” from the fifth symphony.  At any rate, one gets a sense of a deeper, spiritual and ethereal realm.  The music works to a slow build of great power before pulling back to a moving string recap from the opening.  The result is a stunning work of engaging orchestral music beautifully performed here.

    The central work here is the Guitar Concerto (2013).  The three movement work.  A motive from the first movement will be one unifying factor in the work as is an overarching spiritual expression that in some ways is a precursor to what Leshnoff would explore more fully in the opening symphony.  The guitar here is brought to the forefront with an economy of scoring for the orchestra to help it stand out more.  This is indeed one of the primary challenges in writing for the instrument and orchestra.  In this way the first movement assigns primary material to the soloist while the orchestra then interacts by repeating certain motivic ideas in more commentary than dialogue.  The orchestra is pared down to strings, harp and some percussion for the restrained and somewhat ethereal central movement.  Here the guitar weaves through the sparse texture.  The finale is a dance-like and light piece that hints at more traditional guitar music with plenty of flair and Spanish references.  The rhythmic ideas here help lift the piece’s interest as it spins delightfully along.  Jason Vieaux gives a committed performance with nice subtle playing in the central movement.

    The final work on the album is Starburst (2010).  This is a rather brief work, but one that helped bring Leshnoff’s voice to a wider public as it became an opening work for many orchestras.  It is a bit odd to have it at the end here where it serves more as an encore.  The piece is in three larger parts with an energetic opening, a central lyrical idea, and then an exhilarating finale.  One might best describe it as a cross between John Adams and Jerry Goldsmith!  The music is certainly quite engaging and one can see why this work is an audience pleaser.

    Those interested in modern American orchestral music will find Leshnoff’s work to be in that thread of Neo-Romantic symphonists of the Harris, Diamond, Creston school.  His music has an exciting rhythmic energy that is also balanced with often stunning sonorous writing in the slow movements.  It is music one will return to again.




  • Duo Sequenza Explores New Music for Flute and Guitar


    Yes…It’s a Thing
    Duo Sequenza
    Navona Records 6225
    Total Time:  67:07
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****


    Duo Sequenza is based in Valparaiso, Indiana, but has toured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.  Flautist Debra Silvert and guitarist Paul Bowman come together to promote the work of living composers and new music for this distinct combination of instruments.  In this new release, they introduce listeners to the work of five composers created over the past thirty years.

    The earliest piece on the album is David Noon’s (b. 1946) Partita, Op. 103 (1989).  Noon’s background included studying with composers Darius Milhaud and Mario Davidovsky.  His four-movement work takes inspiration from the Baroque suite with an opening prelude an then several dance forms.  His lyrical ideas float above the gentle restrained arpeggio of the guitar accompaniment in the opening “Preludio” which blends a semi-modal harmonic feel.  The music has the quality of referencing a previous musical era while maintaining some slight modernist tendencies along the way.  This proves to be the case in the beautiful writing in the “Musette” and “Pastorale” movements.

    In Jerry Owen’s Meshquanowat’ (1995), we are taken on a journey that follows the Red-Tailed Hawk.  The title infers to the Mesquakje’s word for the animal and the music also refers to this tribe and its culture.  Musically, the approach bears some slight resemblance to the opening piece with a fairly tonal language and equally wonderful lyricism.

    The Two Pieces for flute and guitar (2000) by Marc Mellits are two contrasting movements of first a slightly minimalist nature and one that is more emotional with its elegiac ties to personal loss.  The first movement is a rather mesmerizing affair with its small cells in rapid repetition that float from one idea to the other in a rather intriguing way that blends the flute and guitar timbres.

    Duets Exhibition (2016) by the Iranian-born composer Amin Sharifi is a four-movement work whose music invites some introspection.  Some select literary passages for three of the movements provide a possible direction for the listener’s imagination.  The movements have a somewhat free and fluid style with the tonal language sometimes shifting in interesting chromatic directions.  The music has a slightly more dissonant language that comes out the most in “The Game”.  Listeners can let their own imagination carry them through these pieces where the instruments tend to be in dialogue more often, though the flute still tends to be prominently featured.  Each movement has a rather melancholy feel which leads us into the mysterious final “Murdered in the Labyrinth.”

    The South Shore Suite (2016) is a multi-movement work by Jorge Muniz commissioned by Duo Sequenza.  It presents a series of musical postcards that give us aural glimpses along the South Shore of Lake Michigan.  Muniz’s work was written for the Indiana Bicentennial.  Each of the movements bears a descriptive title that links it to an important regional legend from Princess Mishawaka to local legend Alice Gray, and even John Dillinger.  The music is rather evocative in short taking us in a musical train ride from South Bend to Chicago.  Along the way, Muniz’s music references popular musical genres to add additional flavor to the work which has slightly more chromatic color than the previous works on the release.

    Duo Sequenza provide committed performances here that explore the colors of this particular combination of flute and guitar.  The compositions here all have an accessible musical language that makes for an engaging experience where listeners are taken on some fascinating journeys.