Interview: Noah Bendix-Balgley, on Recording Jonathan Leshnoff's Violin Concerto No. 2

April 20, 2023, 4:21 PM · Here's some music that goes straight to the soul:

It's the second movement of Jonathan Leshnoff's Violin Concerto No. 2, in a new recording by violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley, the American-born First Concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic. Noah recorded Leshnoff’s second violin concerto with Oklahoma City Philharmonic and conductor Alexander Mickelthwate, and the album also includes two other works by Leshnoff, his "Elegy" and "Of Thee I Sing," commissioned by the OCP in memory of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

Noah Bendix-Balgley and Alexander Mickelthwate
Violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley and conductor Alexander Mickelthwate.

"The slow and lyrical second movement of the violin concerto is pensive, and very emotional, scored for just solo violin, strings and harp," Bendix-Balgley told me, in an interview about the concerto. "It forms the heart of the whole piece. The movement is entitled 'Chokhmah Yud,' which refers to the mysterious genesis of a creative idea, the seed of inspiration."

"Chokhmah Yud" is a Hebrew term - and much of Leshnoff's music carries Jewish themes. Bendix-Balgley himself wrote a violin concerto based on his lifelong involvement with traditional Jewish Klezmer music. It was called Fidl-Fantazye: A Klezmer Concerto, and Noah premiered it in 2016 with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, where he was concertmaster from 2011 until 2015.

Does Leshnoff's music have a bit of that Klezmer spirit as well?

"A lot of Jonathan Leshnoff’s music addresses Jewish identity and themes, especially Jonathan’s study of Jewish mysticism," Bendix-Balgley said. "In this work, the third movement is a dance-like scherzo, which certainly has klezmer elements in it."

Leshnoff, born in 1973, is based in Baltimore and is a Professor of Music at Towson University. His second violin concerto was originally written for violinist Alex Kerr and premiered by Kerr and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in 2018.

So how playable is Leshnoff's Violin Concerto No. 2?

"Jonathan's violin concerto is both an exciting and a lyrical work, with soaring melodies for the violin, as well as rhythmically driving passagework," Bendix-Balgley said. "It is quite challenging for both the orchestra and the soloist. The fast movements have nonstop moving notes, often in complex groupings, and getting everything tight and together is not easy. But it’s a rewarding process, as the piece is enjoyable to play and to listen to. I would say the work is immediately relatable, and violinists may notice passages with inspiration from the Sibelius concerto, Bach E major Preludio and more - Jonathan told me as much!"

"I think an advanced student could tackle the work, and the music is indeed available," Bendix-Balgley said. (The music is published through Theodore Presser Co., here is a link for purchasing the piano reduction.)

What brought Noah to Leshnoff's music?

"This came together by happy coincidence- I knew of Jonathan Leshnoff and his work, but had never played it myself," Bendix-Balgley said. "I was scheduled to play another piece of Jonathan's - his Chamber Concerto for Violin - in May 2020 in Japan. Unfortunately that performance never happened because of the Covid lockdown. But I had been in touch with Jonathan in preparation for the concert, and he then asked me about performing and recording his second violin concerto. I was very happy to do so."

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