Requiem For The Fallen

In a commissioned piece, disciplined composer Jonathan Leshnoff seeks to honor not only soldiers who have died, but also civilians

Work In Progress

August 05, 2007|By TIM SMITH

THE COMPOSER / / Jonathan Leshnoff's music has been performed throughout the country by a wide variety of ensembles. The 33-year-old New Jersey native, who studied composition at the Peabody Institute, is an associate professor at Towson University. He lives in Northwest Baltimore with his wife and two children.

IN HIS WORDS / / The commission for the piece originated with the Handel Choir of Baltimore. And then the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra came in. They're the major commissioners, and they will collaborate on the premiere performance. They were looking for a work that would tie into a modern theme, and somehow it came down to writing Requiem for the Fallen. A lot of my titles are generic-sounding -- Violin Concerto, Sextet. I'm proud of this title.

WHAT INSPIRED ME / / Obviously, the piece can be related to the war in Iraq, but I'm not ranting at all. This is not an anti-Bush piece; I'm not writing this against General Petraeus. There have been so many different wars for a long time. We're all feeling the pain of so much death. And this is my way of commemorating not just the soldiers, but civilians who have been killed.

TEXTS / / I've used parts of the Catholic Mass and the Kaddish from Jewish liturgy. I'm also using two Walt Whitman texts written after the Civil War. And it ends on an uplifting note with the Prayer of St. Francis -- "Let me be an agent of your peace; where there is doubt give me faith ..." That will be sung by the choir a cappella. I'm very excited to see how that ending works. I feel that I'm touching something very deep there.

DEADLINES / / I take deadlines very seriously, and I pride myself for being on time. The Requiem is due Nov. 1. I started selecting the texts in March and April. In May, I worked on organizing these texts into a coherent structure. June was spent fleshing out ideas, and July in getting the notes down in short score [a kind of shorthand for composers]. And now I'm working on the orchestration. By Nov. 1, they will have everything.

COMPOSING METHOD / / I'm a tremendously practical composer. The first thing I do when I start work on a piece is count my hours. I set daily goals and weekly goals. It's a long process. I'll usually play some stuff on the piano for a while, fool around with themes. Then I'll go somewhere else and pace around the room and think about what I did. On a typical day during the summer or when I'm on sabbatical -- and I'm on sabbatical until February -- I still do my composing at my Towson University office.

SCHEDULE / / I get up at 5:30 or 6 a.m., and take my jog. On good days I get to my office around 7:30 or 8, and work until 7 in the evening. I do very good work in the morning, but it takes hours to get in the zone. I find that as the day goes on, the energy gets stronger; a special excitement comes at 4, 5 or 6 in the afternoon. It can be painful to separate from that and go home.

BALANCING ACT / / When I'm on my regular teaching schedule at Towson, I still strive to maintain a rigorous composing schedule, sandwiched around the teaching and committee meetings. I always make time -- not "find," I'll never "find" time -- to compose each day. Sometimes I put up a sign on my door saying, "I'll be available soon, but I'm not available now."

STATUS REPORT / / This piece is going very well. But Whitman is wordy. He's going to roll over several times in his grave because I've had to eliminate some of his stanzas -- I've been callous. It would be an opera if I set all of his words. But he's dead [laughter], and he doesn't have a publicist.

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