Encore performance

Arts

October 12, 2006|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Hearty applause, booming cheers and standing ovations are not exactly rare at concerts of Beethoven or Tchaikovsky or Mahler around here, but for brand-new works by unfamiliar composers? That's a different story. Audiences aren't too easily stirred by contemporary music, so the sight and sound of a Baltimore Chamber Orchestra crowd leaping up to cheer a local premiere last winter proved remarkable.

Luckily, for those who missed that performance of the Violin Concerto by Jonathan Leshnoff - and for those who were there and would like to relive the experience - there will be a reprise Tuesday at Towson University, presented by the school's department of music. That's not all. The concerto will be recorded for commercial release on the high-profile Naxos label.

"The concert last February was truly moving," says BCO music director Markand Thakar. "Four members of our audience approached me afterward and said that other people needed to hear this concerto, and they wanted to help make that possible. The Towson University provost had the same thought."

As a result of that interest, the encore concert was organized, with the original, excellent soloist, Charles Wetherbee, concertmaster of the Columbus Symphony. "We also raised around $20,000 to fund the recording and fly in the engineer," says Leshnoff, a member of TU's music faculty.

No release date has been scheduled, but the disc will include other works by the composer, whose reputation has been spreading rapidly for the past few years.

Music by the New Jersey-born, Peabody Conservatory-trained Leshnoff, 33, has been premiered by the Kansas City Symphony and U.S. Marine Band, among others. Commissions for new pieces have come in at a steady pace. A double concerto for violin and viola is in the pipeline, along with a trombone concerto and a large-scale choral score. A string sextet will be premiered in New York in May; a work for harp, viola, flute and percussion next season in Philadelphia.

"I'm in way over my head," the composer says with a laugh.

In terms of time-management, maybe, but not in terms of artistic depth. Leshnoff writes music that is at once richly sophisticated and accessible, fundamentally tonal and harmonically challenging. The Violin Concerto is a particularly potent work that fulfills the composer's basic philosophy.

"It is very important that my pieces do something, go on a kind of journey and have something to say to an audience," he said last winter, just before the concerto's Baltimore premiere (the work had been introduced by the Columbus Symphony a few months earlier that season).

Although the score is essentially abstract, an inner program fueled Leshnoff's inspiration. As he wrote the concerto, he had in mind a first-hand Holocaust story he heard from a survivor of a camp where inmates were forced to sing German propaganda songs as they worked. "But as the prisoners advanced down the line, people in the back would start to infuse prayers into these horrific Nazi songs as a guise, a plea," the composer explains.

From that troubling story came the concept of a concerto that undergoes what Leshnoff calls a "process of emergence." As the score unfolds, "themes become more and more developed, leading to an elegiac finale."

The concerto has already been performed by the National Orchestra of Mexico and the National Repertory Orchestra in Colorado. The Kyoto Philharmonic will play it next summer, the Buffalo Philharmonic next fall.

"The first time I heard a work of Jonathan's, I thought, `This guy has something going on,'" says Thakar, who will fill out Tuesday's program with symphonies by Beethoven and Britten to complement the Leshnoff concerto.

"One of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra's primary jobs is to move our audience. Another is to refresh the repertoire. It's extremely rare and extremely gratifying to be able to do both of these things with one piece."

The Baltimore Chamber Orchestra performs at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Towson University's Center for the Arts, Osler and Cross Campus drives. Tickets are $8-$17. Call 410-704-2787 or visit towson.edu/centerforthearts.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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