Review: ASO premieres enthralling new symphony from Jonathan Leshnoff

Jonathan Leshnoff’s Symphony No. 2, “Innerspace” — an engaging, accessible force of new music from a composer with an approachable modern voice — is all about the ending.

A silent fifth movement, with a tempo marking of “Unimaginable,” is a brash choice after four movements of emotional, intense music, but that nothingness is as loud and affecting as any bombastic, triumphant coda.

On Thursday night at Symphony Hall, Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra caught a star on the rise, presenting the world premiere of the 42-year-old Leshnoff’s symphony, an ASO commission, alongside Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. Spano and the ASO will also perform the world premiere of Leshnoff’s “Zohar” oratorio, a joint commission with Carnegie Hall, on April 14 in Atlanta (then again on April 16). The program will then travel to Carnegie Hall in New York for an April 30 performance.

Leshnoff’s Symphony No. 1, “Forgotten Chants and Refrains,” written in 2004, used space as a compositional tool to create tension. Sweeping, triumphant passages with the orchestra playing at full force are juxtaposed next to quiet passages with spare orchestration. Many of those hallmarks are present in “Innerspace.”

In Symphony No. 2, five movements of unique character and material combine to create a composition that immediately feels alive. While some new music might seem scary or overwhelming, Leshnoff’s work is tonal and comforting. Across the movements, there are influences of cherished composers — the driving rhythmic syncopations of the second movement are reminiscent of Stravinsky — but the symphony is wholly unique.

In Leshnoff’s own words, the symphony was born from the exploration of his Jewish heritage and unpacks the main themes from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s book on Jewish religion, “Innerspace.” In the book, Kaplan explains the five levels, or universes, of occlusion from God, which are reflected in the five movements of Leshnoff’s symphony. The first movement, which begins with an anguished cry from the horn section followed by lush, other-worldly strings, represents the first universe, where humanity resides. The fifth level, silence, is the universe that is closest to God.

In the demanding fourth movement, some of the rhythms seemed less crisp and got lost in the thorny, complex writing, but on the whole, the orchestra played with astounding attention to detail and great control. Spano bled an enormous amount of passion from the piece, emphasizing the juxtapositions in tempo and feel deep within each movement.

With the expertly performed, fiery Beethoven on the second half of the program, the ASO presented a symphony that derives its power mostly through grand, expansive writing. In some ways, the Beethoven work proved the polar opposite of Leshnoff’s symphony. The older composition overflows with brief, singable melodies, based on an ever-present rhythmic figure, that stay in the air well after the last note. With Leshnoff’s symphony, the emotional tone of the work is everlasting, but it’s difficult to recall any distinct melodies or phrases.

Spano’s commitment to new music is as important as it is laudable, even more so when presenting a composer who is likely unfamiliar to most of the audience — the ASO last performed a Leshnoff piece in 2014. It’s hard to make a quick judgment on a new work that is so packed with material, and the thin Thursday evening crowd can’t really be blamed for giving the music, and the composer, merely a courteous reception. With a bit of reflection, and a few more performances, Symphony No. 2 will surely become a lasting, heralded work.

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