Jonathan Leshnoff: Symphony No. 3, Piano Concerto. Stephen Powell, baritone; Joyce Yang, piano; Michael Stern, Kansas City Symphony. Reference Recordings FR-739 (SACD), 60:21 minutes.
DIGITAL REVIEW – America’s only World War I Museum, in Kansas City, Mo., is the inspiration for Jonathan Leshnoff’s Symphony No. 3. From the many letters the composer found in the museum’s archives, he selected excerpts from two by men from Kansas City to set for voice in the third movement. The composer says that Michael Stern, music director of the Kansas City Symphony, “was looking for a project to integrate the city’s cultural resources into a symphonic experience.”
On a new Reference Recordings album, Stern leads the orchestra in the world premiere recordings of both Leshnoff’s Third Symphony (2016) and his Piano Concerto (2019). The symphony was recorded a week after its premiere in May 2016; the concerto was recorded at its concert premiere in November 2019. Both works were commissioned by the orchestra (the concerto was a co-commission with the Tucson, Harrisburg, and Knoxville symphony orchestras).
The long-lined legato strings that open the symphony immediately bring to mind works like Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings with its tonal modulations and harmonically resolved suspended chords. It is meditative mood music. The winds, including a contrabassoon, briefly create an unusual, dark balance. French horns, trombones, winds doubling the strings, and timpani swell the poignancy, climaxing with what sounds like long, chime-like strips of hanging metal, like broken church bells, one left, one right, that terminate the crescendo. The movement resolves as it began. What a powerful display of Stern’s grasp of form and the superb strings and winds he has shaped during his 15 years as music director. (He says he’ll be leaving in 2023.)
Leshnoff calls the second movement “my depiction of war and battles.” It opens with the orchestra’s strings clearly projecting the inner harmonic movement. The tempo slows a bit after four minutes but picks up again in another two. It is here that the composer’s tendency toward excessive repetition begins. Six minutes of the strings’ furious arpeggios make one wonder how long they can keep it up. What lies ahead, seven more minutes of the same? The answer, unfortunately, is: Yes. There simply is not enough basic material to support its 13-minute length.
Stephen Powell’s finely modulated but focused baritone opens the last movement with the first letter, a poetic narrative written to the soldier’s mother. Powell beautifully shapes extended vowels so that they move the line forward. The text blends seamlessly with the second soldier’s letter to his wife, full of longing to be with her and ending with, “Should the God of all call upon me, know that I died with your name upon my lips.” Both survived the war; one lived to be 100 and regularly attended the orchestra’s concerts. The orchestra’s encompassing intensity in both letters heightens the yearning.
Leshnoff collaborated with soloist Joyce Yang as an adviser when writing his Piano Concerto. In it she serves up a dazzling array of expression and tone colors. The piano’s tone is full from treble to bass; balance with the orchestra is ideal. Again, the music is traditionally tonal. The first movement features toccata-like syncopations, repeated over and over, modulated in sets of four (or two), blocked like phrases in the most common of old popular songs. The motif itself is finally clarified by Yang in the short cadenza. Underneath it all, the orchestra provides vital forward motion. One again, the strings are excellent.
The second movement opens with a beautiful piano melody of eight measures, followed by repeated modulations of four measures each for two minutes, followed by 40 seconds for orchestra alone. Then a development parsed into phrases of either four or two measures grows in intensity and resolves in a cadence, but all with the same endless repetition of arpeggios and patterned modulations.
In the short Scherzo, Yang gives exciting pulse to the melodies and arpeggios with her perfect rhythmic weight and brilliant colors. What saves the Finale from yet more repeated patterns is Leshnoff’s colorful piano writing, which Yang makes infectious, as Stern’s vital rhythms stir the cauldron, and the orchestra and pianist switch roles from leader to accompanist. While not profound, it certainly is terrific fun.
The engineering is rich, embracing, detailed, and balanced. Superb liner notes by Leshnoff, the baritone’s full texts, pertinent background, artists’ information, technical details, and excellent photos add up to a first-class presentation.
Gil French was Concert Editor of American Record Guide from 2005 to 2020. He has reviewed recordings and concerts since 1988. He also served as midday classical host in public radio from 1988 to 2003.