“I barely understand the Zohar on its surface level,” said composer Jonathan Leshnoff. And yet one of his most recent works is inspired by this foundational text in the Jewish mystical pursuit of Kabbalah.
“It’s the key to kabbalistic thinking — and even though I don’t understand it at all, the little bit that was explained to me just blew me away,” he said about this scholarly pursuit into the depths and heights of Jewish mystical thinking.
His 2013 classical oratorio, “Zohar,” was inspired by his thinking and textual study. “It’s a very broad and striking piece of music because it’s written from the heart, the center of creative and spiritual energy,” he said.
On Saturday, the Montgomery County-based National Philharmonic will bring Leshnoff’s work to life in a Washington-area premiere, under the baton of Piotr Gajewski at the Music Center at Strathmore. The concert features soprano Danielle Talamantes, baritone Nmon Ford and the National Philharmonic Chorale. The program is rounded out with Johannes Brahms’ German Requiem, op. 45, a large-scale work that mourns the loss of Brahms’ mother. But unlike most requiems, which memorialize the dead, this one also comforts the mourners.
As a companion piece to Brahms’ “Requiem,” “Zohar” is a study in contrasts. There’s the ecstatic yearning and reaching for the unknown and unknowable higher being in the words Leshnoff selected from the multi-volume text that’s both a commentary on and a mystical addendum to the Torah. And the more personal aspect of the work is heard in the softer, less grandiose phrases that depict a more prosaic view of humans in the universe.
Leshnoff grew up in New Jersey — Garden State Parkway exit 145 — in an artistic home. His mother is an artist, his grandmother, a pianist. He attended Hebrew school at a Conservative synagogue and took violin lessons, but soon shifted to the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, where he focused on classical composition.
“My musical burgeoning and my Jewish exploration happened at the same time,” he said last week from his office at Towson University, where he is a music professor. In college, Leshnoff read Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s book “Inner Space,” which ultimately became an inspiration for his “Zohar” oratorio. “That book is a very introductory idea into kabbalistic thinking,” he said. “I read the first two pages and said, that’s amazing. But I couldn’t understand the next hundred.”
At that point he decided to delve deeper into what he called “meat-and-potatoes” Judaism, and studied traditional Jewish texts at Orthodox yeshivot, both in the United States and Israel. “Twenty years later I returned to the book and it started to make sense … and the music started to flow.”
Although Leshnoff had composed symphonies, quartets, concertos and other works, with “Zohar,” he was awakened to the deep connections between music and his Jewish spirituality.
“Above all, [this piece] is written from the heart, the center of creative and spiritual energy. … I realized that I could combine, merge, conflate my spirituality with music, so that the music becomes a vessel to express these very wonderful thoughts,” he said. The piece is 25 minutes long.
Today the composer lives an Orthodox life in Baltimore, which includes daily morning prayers, text study and synagogue attendance. He finds his Judaism and his spiritual path have made him a better and more creative composer.
“I like to call music the lowest part of the higher world and the highest part of this lower world,” he said. “It’s like a portal where we can access things that are simply intangible. There’s nothing to it. You play a violin and no things come out of it. Music has no form. Nevertheless, it can take us to different worlds. So that very close parallel between music and spiritually is why I started to dedicate my compositions to mystical spiritual topics. Of all my compositions, ‘Zohar’ deals with this most directly.”
“Zohar” by Jonathan Leshnoff with the National Philharmonic, March 18 at 8:30 p.m. A conversation on “Zohar” with Cantors Laura Croen and Michael Shochet begins at 8 p.m. Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, Bethesda. For tickets, call 301-760-4403 or visit nationalphilharmonic.org.