Not to sound too New Age-y, but when talking to composer Jonathan Leshnoff, one gets the strong impression that he is an old soul.
Even though he is only 42, Leshnoff exudes the wisdom of a rabbi. He says he is reluctant to talk about his spiritual beliefs, but it’s quite obvious that’s the thing he wants to talk about most. It’s a delight to hear his spiritual insights, which flow from him like water.
The Kansas City Symphony commissioned Leshnoff to compose a symphony to commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I. The Symphony will give the work its world premiere Friday, with additional performances Saturday and May 22 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
Complex, deeply thoughtful and, yes, truly spiritual, Leshnoff is the perfect person to try to make sense of a horror like World War I.
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His Symphony No. 3, with a final movement inspired by soldiers’ letters to their loved ones, is a profound meditation on war. Michael Stern, music director of the Kansas City Symphony and a longtime friend of Leshnoff, is pleased with the results.
“We told Jonathan that we specifically wanted this piece to reflect the Kansas City experience in World War I, and he came to Kansas City and really pored through the archives at the World War I museum and found these texts, which are perfectly suited,” Stern said. “It turns out completely by chance that one of the letters was written by a family member of one of our board members. It’s absolutely astonishing.”
The letter is from James Kellogg Burnham Hockaday, uncle of board member Irv Hockaday and father of Laura Rollins Hockaday, former society editor for The Kansas City Star.
“I knew I wanted a letter that expressed yearning, that expressed hope, that expressed love, that expressed awe and mystery, and I was looking for that,” Leshnoff said. “I chose two, one was from a dentist and one was from a serviceman. Lo and behold, the serviceman was from a well-known Kansas City family. I’d love to meet them.”
Leshnoff is reluctant to talk about his spiritual beliefs, fearing that their “delicate” meanings will be misunderstood, yet it’s impossible to discuss his music without exploring the Jewish mysticism that informs Leshnoff’s art and his life.
He eschews the superficial kabbalism made famous by pop culture types like Madonna. For Leshnoff, it’s the complex, age-old tradition of Jewish mysticism that guides every aspect of his life.
“In mystical Judaism, they say there’s an angel by every blade of grass saying ‘grow,’ ” Leshnoff said. “Even a rock has a soul, a plant has a soul, a dog has a soul, a human has a soul. Everything has a soul. Everything has potential, inert or not. There’s nothing in the world which isn’t being watched over every second and every moment. God’s presence is absolutely, totally there doing things.”
It is in the kabbalistic notion of Gevurah that Leshnoff finds an explanation for unfathomable horrors like war. According to Leshnoff, Gevurah, the fifth of the 10 Sefirot in the kabbalistic tree of life, or emanations through which the infinite reveals himself, is about holding back.
“I chose Gevurah in regards to this symphony because war from a human perspective is horrible,” Leshnoff said. “But from a divine perspective there is some holding back because there is a greater purpose to be achieved and to achieve that greater purpose, something has to be held back.
“How does someone become brave? Does he become brave by sitting there and watching TV? No, he becomes brave because he has to go through cancer, and the cancer brings a potential to actualization.”
These are heady concepts, to be sure, and Leshnoff worries that to try to explain them in words risks misunderstanding. He believes that the best medium for conveying mystical insights is through music. He points to the Old Testament prophet Samuel, who used music to train the young men in the “schools of the prophets.”
Just as French composer Olivier Messiaen, in almost every piece he wrote, tried to express the mysteries of the Catholic faith, Leshnoff is trying to do the same with Jewish mysticism.
Leshnoff also believes that, whether they know it or not, audiences turn to music for a mystical experience.
“What do you get when you go to a concert?” Leshnoff said. “You don’t get a goodie bag. Why do people do this? The answer is that we’re communing with something greater than us. We’re communing with a force and a power that flows into our innermost selves and opens doors like nothing else can do. Like no iPhone, no movie could do. It exalts us. It brings us to greater heights.”
You can reach Patrick Neas at firstname.lastname@example.org.