How to merge Kabbala and music

Jonathan Leshnoff (photo credit: ERICA HAMILTON)
Jonathan Leshnoff
(photo credit: ERICA HAMILTON)
For many years the gifted American composer Jonathan Leshnoff wrote music because he had “something to say, something to express.”
All well and good, but Leshnoff’s musical world took an unexpected turn – in his own words, a kind of “religious epiphany” – as Kabbala began to open up new layers of discovery and meaning for him.
The ebullient young composer remembers one fateful day in 1993 when, seated in the Jewish student center at Johns Hopkins University, he discovered the book Inner Space: Introduction to Kabbala, Meditation and Prophecy, by the late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan.
Was it “divine providence,” Leshnoff wonders, “the one moment that changes someone’s life? “I picked it up and started reading it. I understood five pages, and when I got to the sixth page, I was totally lost, and the next hundred made no sense… and I said, ‘You know what, maybe I should start with the meat and potatoes,’ so at that point I started a long journey of traditional Ashkenazi Jewish training.
“Essentially 20 years later from that point, around 2013, I picked up Inner Space again and this time I began to understand it. That has led me on a separate journey... intimately tied with my music.”
The composer, who holds a degree in anthropology from Johns Hopkins and another in composition from the Peabody Institute of Music, began to recognize “a link with spiritual ideas… that kept surfacing.”
That led him on a path to interpreting Jewish spirituality and Kabbala through music, setting a goal of producing a 10-piece meta-project dealing with sefirot, “the basic building blocks of kabbalistic thought,” which “represent Divine interaction with creation.”
To date, Leshnoff has completed five of these pieces, with work proceeding on the next two.
“If you were to take all of the movements together,” he explains, “each one lifted from its piece, you’d get another piece, and that’s the meta-project…” His work has not yet been performed in Israel.
My introduction to Leshnoff’s music came in a performance of his magnificent Clarinet Concerto by the Santa Barbara Symphony Orchestra, led by its Israeli-born conductor Nir Kabaretti with principal clarinetist Donald T. Foster as soloist. The piece was co-commissioned by the Santa Barbara Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
In the second movement of the concerto, with its powerful, uplifting character, the listener is introduced to what Leshnoff calls the sefira of hessed – “the attribute of unfettered giving…” “The music keeps going and going,” he explains.
“There are several times when it could stop, but I say, no, let’s continue… So it keeps pushing and pushing because that’s the idea of hessed, continuing to give and expand itself forward.”
For Kabaretti, the concerto “has the feeling of getting into your soul.”
Musically, he adds, it lends itself to “a prayer or a soul longing for something, even though it isn’t liturgical.” At the same time, he believes that the music is very American, with jazzy elements reminiscent of Aaron Copland, who was on the same Santa Barbara concert program as Leshnoff.
“They [both] have the same language for me,” says the adventurous Kabaretti, “which is American… wide open spaces, long phrases, chords over a very large range, and all kinds of rhythmical elements.” The conductor also identifies Latin American sounds in the mix, reflected in the wood blocks with their delightful mambo effect.
When all is said and done, does one really need to know Kabbala to appreciate Leshnoff’s music? Not really, it seems.
“That’s the beauty of music,” says Kabaretti.
“You don’t necessarily have to know the story behind it or if the composer had a specific intention.
“You just like the music because it’s good and that’s… the very basic definition of good music – it’s something you like immediately when you hear it. But knowing Jonathan’s story brings you to a deeper understanding.”
Another of Leshnoff’s kabbalistic works, Zohar, was commissioned by the Atlanta Symphony to mark the centennial of Robert Shaw, one of the symphony’s former principal conductors. Written as a companion piece to Brahms’s Requiem, it was first performed in Atlanta and then at Carnegie Hall.
Compared to Requiem, Zohar is, in Leshnoff’s words, an “ecstatic” Jewish response about “the deepest, most fundamental principles of Yiddishkeit.”
“If you want to know what’s going on, what Creation is about and what we are doing here,” he says, “I am told that’s the Zohar.”
Perhaps the most telling indication of Kabbala in Leshnoff’s music might be his Symphony No. 2, because it moves to complete silence in the last movement.
Leshnoff explains: “The kabbalistic universe is actually a division of five levels. When we talk about our world, we can describe things that happen in this universe and the one above, but as you get up and up, it’s harder to describe because there’s nothing to describe God.”
So by the fifth movement, the orchestra, reflecting the highest universe, holds a complete silence for a minute and a half and is visually frozen as well.
The Orthodox Leshnoff, who teaches music at Towson University in Baltimore, grew up in a Jewish home he describes as Conservative by affiliation. His late grandmother was a pianist, his mother is a visual artist and his father is an engineer. It was his father’s mathematical background, the composer believes, that “genetically” influenced his musical path.
Leshnoff and his family have a long-term goal tied in a way to Kabbala: they eventually want to make aliya, specifically to Safed, where kabbalists settled in the late 15th century after the Spanish Inquisition.
“Safed is explicitly mystical,” says the composer.
“We really want to go there. To be in Safed with the sky, the blue, the air, the history and the shuls…”