The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra will present the world premiere of Jonathan Leshnoff’s oratorio “Zohar” this month at Symphony Hall before moving on to New York for the composer’s debut at Carnegie Hall.
The work is based on one of the pillars of Jewish mysticism and is a commentary on the mystical aspects of the Torah, Leshnoff said.
ASO chief Robert Spano will conduct at both locales, and soprano Jessica Rivera and baritone Nmon Ford will be the featured vocalists. Also on the program is Brahms’ “Ein Deutsches Requiem.”
Leshnoff, hugely prolific at only 42, is having a busy 2015-16 season. The Philadelphia Orchestra will introduce his new clarinet concerto the same week as the Atlanta concerts. His “Symphony No. 3” is launching in Kansas City in May, and a new violin concerto featuring soloist Gil Shaham is on tour. Just last November, Spano and the ASO premiered Leshnoff’s “Innerspace” composition.
“I work hard,” Leshnoff said in an interview. “I take every minute as an opportunity and a gift. I like to use my time productively. We don’t own a TV; we have books. That may have something to do with it.”
“Zohar,” co-commissioned by Spano and Carnegie Hall, was created as the antithesis to the more somber, hour-long requiem in the evening’s program, Leshnoff said. “All I was told was ‘We’re going to do the Brahms requiem; can’t you do a piece that gives the soprano a little bit more to do?’ That got me thinking; I designed the piece to be a purposeful contrast to Brahms.”
His oratorio, which lasts 25 minutes, is “just long enough to be legit and not too long to be massive,” he said. The difference between the two is thematic as well. “Where Brahms is a comfort, a solace to the bereaved, mine is an ecstatic embrace of the living. Brahms has a secular perspective on the New Testament; mine is from ancient sources.”
The work is based on the spiritual text known as the Zohar, the foundation of Kabbalah. “The Zohar is extremely profound, dealing with the most basic and deepest issues of Judaism and life,” Leshnoff wrote in an email to the AJT. “I barely understand its surface level, but even that inspires me to the core of my being. My composition straddles the ecstatic mystical experiences that I glean from the Zohar itself and balances such heightened moments against the human, ‘down to earth’ elements of existence.”
To study the Zohar properly, a student must first undergo years of preparation and be guided by a qualified teacher rooted in the tradition, said Leshnoff, who wishes he could master it. He said during an interview that he knows enough to be able to evaluate the Zohar’s basic framework. “Even that is so deep, so majestic, so inspiring, it’s just so beautiful. It’s a whole technical system that’s so magnificent; it just makes music in my head.”
Leshnoff said his goal is to take the audience on a journey. “Where they go, I don’t know, but I need to be the conduit, the means to have them go somewhere. And if I can provide that bridge, then I’ve done my job. My aesthetic is that music needs to do something to us. It needs to affect us. That’s why the music that lasts through centuries is there.”
Who: Jonathan Leshnoff
What: “Zohar” oratorio with Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Where: Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St., Midtown
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, April 14, and Saturday, April 16
Tickets: $25 to $94; www.atlantasymphony.org or 404-733-4800