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Where There's 'Hope,' There's ... PIFA

April 21, 2011 By:
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Can't we all get along?

Hope so, says Jonathan Leshnoff. And his "Hope" is just that -- a union of a musical mission of orchestra, soloists, choir, poetry and composer that bonds Bible to spiritual and blends ancient with au courant.

And this oratorio of an aural sensation all plays an important part in the current Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, where the Jersey Boy's broad-based composition premieres April 24, at 3 p.m., commissioned by and performed at the Kimmel Center.

The center of attention is Leshnoff, lest one forget his accumulated accomplishments prior to this piece, including a premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra last month as well as his scintillating "Starburst," with the Baltimore Symphony.

The star burst that is "Hope" is in three-part harmony -- even if the world is not?

Well, he wouldn't be calling it "Hope" if there were none.

Starting out with Ecclesiastes and ending on a similar ecstatic note, Leshnoff lassoes different cultures and beats in this fusion of the long-lasting and ephemeral.

Want proof of the work's all-encompassing nature? He has a staff of five to proof the 250,000 notes that go into "Hope."

Clad in kipah, the native Caldwell, N.J.., composer with family in Philly fills in the traditional with the unorthodox, in a way in keeping with his own image: As an Orthodox Jew, he claims, kibitzing a bit, he is considered "a renegade," viewed by other Orthodox "with suspicion" for his musical muse.

But that muse offers its own mitzvah. He chose Ecclesiastes purposely as genesis and closure for "Hope." "King Solomon said, there is a time to give birth, a time to die, that everything has a function and we should appreciate that" dimension of time.

This may be Leshnoff's time. We are the world, we are the music: "I wrote the oratorio in five languages to reach out" to all.

He reaches within as well, as "Hope" comes at a special time of sederim. "I wrote this in 2009, and would be composing through" various other Jewish holidays, with an eye on its premiere during Pesach.

This composition "is all about ascending."

His career is in that state as well; critics have heralded him with hosannas as composer-in-residence with the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra.

He's even made the grade with students at Towson University, in Maryland, where he's an associate professor of music: Student ratings hit high notes of approval.

"I do okay," says Leshnoff, somewhat self-effacing.

Facing the music is easier when commissions keep coming as do Naxos recording contracts, a plethora of which play out on his bio.

With all the applause and accolades, this down-to-earth composer with the heavenly career concedes not everyone can walk around without cloud cover.

"Oh," he laughs, "my family -- my wife and kids -- would have some good stories to tell about me; we all have flaws."

But then life is filled with rites and wrongs. "Contemplating the cosmic," as an artist does, and living in the everyday, "means a balancing of dual realities," contends Leshnoff.

The existential see-saw sees him through, however: "It's a blessing and a curse but makes for a magical existence."

Composed and committed to his work, he finds free time to hang out with others outside the musical realm, banging the drum for such buds as Drug Free Charlie.

Drug Free Charlie? Sounds mind-bending but is anything but: Leshnoff commits time and energy to publicize this character created by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America to prevent kids from getting into substance abuse.

But who knew he'd have to disabuse those who hired him of what he would deliver. Since "Hope" was to premiere around Easter, those who commissioned him originally asked Leshnoff to compose a passion about Christ.

Pointing to his kipah, the composer -- and seemingly part-time comedian -- replied, "I think you're looking at the wrong guy."

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