Even the most classical pieces of music were considered new at some point, which means Beethoven probably felt the same sort of nerves about the debut of his symphonies as composer Jonathan Leshnoff feels about the world premiere of his music at the Fort Wayne Philharmonic Masterworks finale Saturday.
A lot of music gets written, and not all of it makes the annals of history, but every composer wishes to get in there somehow, Leshnoff says by phone from Baltimore. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was a world premiere at one time; it was a new thing. If Beethoven hadn’t written that, gosh, the world would be so much different.
The Fort Wayne Philharmonic will deliver the premiere of Leshnoff’s Dark Bells, accompanied by guest viola soloist Peter Minkler, the Philharmonic Chorus and IPFW University Singers. The evening will conclude with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony featuring vocalists Martha Guth, Rebekah Ambrosini, Charles Reid and Daniel Eifert. Music director Andrew Constantine will conduct the concert with guest concertmaster Ivan Stefanovic.
Inspired by troubled writer Edgar Allan Poe, Dark Bells is a poetic piece commissioned by the Philharmonic, Maryland State Arts Council and Minkler. The music, similar to Poe’s poetry, transitions from an airy commencement to a gloomy conclusion.
His poems, other than the real famous ones like The Raven’ or Annabel Lee,’ are very personal. I thought with this combination, especially with the viola having a darker, huskier sound, would be an effective way to use (Poe’s) words and Jonathan’s music, Minkler says by phone from Baltimore. Jonathan has a dark sort of quality, and he writes things that have emotional impact.
For Dark Bells, the 20-minute piece is inspired by the poems The Bells, Eldorado and Alone. The music begins lightly, reminiscent of Poe’s short-lived bliss of hearing twinkling sleigh bells and rejoicing wedding bells in The Bells to a dark and stormy tone that often took over Poe’s work and personal life.
Poe is not a happy guy, Leshnoff says. A lot of his poetry is sinister, creepy and downright scary. It was a hard commission to write because it got so dark. I did find a light moment to it, and that becomes important to this piece because if it’s just dark, it becomes a downer.
It’s dark, but fun nonetheless, he adds.
What makes the composition unique, is that instead of a concerto, which has the instrumental soloist versus the orchestra, or an oratorio, which has the orchestra accompanied by a chorus, Dark Bells uses both the instrumental soloist and chorus. Leshnoff says there are few pieces that include both.
With the combination of the choir – the sounds, the yells and the whispers – combined with the viola, which has a lush, honey-like tone in its darker register, these two forces produce some exquisite sounds that I could never get without those instruments on my plate, he says.
The recurring theme, among the cast of characters for this piece, is the city of Baltimore.
After a failed stint at West Point Academy and being ostracized from his foster parents, Poe lived in Baltimore for four years in the early 1800s with his aunt and returned to the city to marry his teenage cousin and muse, Virginia, in 1836. Baltimore is also where Poe mysteriously died in 1849, after living through the torment of personal illness, financial ruin and the death of his wife in 1847.
Leshnoff lives in Baltimore, as do Minkler and concertmaster Stefanovic, who are musicians for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Music director Constantine first moved to the U.S. in 2004 to be the assistant conductor for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra before joining the Fort Wayne Philharmonic in 2009.
A few weeks back, we all met in my office, and we had a little bobblehead of Poe, and we actually played through the piece. I played piano, Peter played the viola, Andrew did the conducting and Ivan took notes – we had sort of a pre-premiere powwow, Leshnoff says. It’s been really fun. I know both Peter and Andrew, and I think they are absolutely fantastic musicians.
But the first performance of the piece presents a challenge. Due to an illness in his family, Leshnoff will be unable to travel to Fort Wayne.
Although Minkler says it is unusual not to have the composer present for a world premiere, he says that he and Constantine know what Leshnoff is trying to present with this piece, and Leshnoff is confident in the talent at hand for the performance.
It’s a brand-new piece, and I never played with the orchestra before, and never played in the performance hall before, so these are all new elements for me. I worked with Andrew before as a soloist, and we get along very well. I really respect him, so that in itself is much more calming for me, Minkler says. If I were going to a place where I wasn’t sure that the conductor could handle it, or I wasn’t sure the orchestra or the chorus was very good, I would be more anxious. I know people in Baltimore who have played with the Philharmonic, and they have told me how wonderful it is, so I can’t ask for anything more. It should be great.
Leshnoff says for every work he produces, the goal is to take the audience on an individual, personal journey.
I hope the audience drops their guards, immerse themselves and let it go wherever it takes them, Leshnoff says. Whether they go somewhere happy, somewhere scary, somewhere ecstatic is up to them. As long as I take them somewhere, and I am a means to that, I’ve been successful.