Grammy nominated composer Johnathan Leshnoff wrote "Of Thee I Sing" to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. The OKC Philharmonic debuts the piece Saturday Feb. 1 during a special concert at the Civic Center Music Hall. Leshnoff discussed "Of Thee I Sing" with KGOU’s Richard Bassett, and began by sharing his reaction to what happened the morning of April 19, 1995.
Jonathan Leshnoff: The 1995 bombing had a profound effect on me as a person, even though I was far away geographically in Baltimore. But it was the beginning of a new chapter in American history, a dark chapter. And though I wasn't as close to the people of Oklahoma City or had friends, family who actually suffered in this terrible situation, we all as Americans felt that we were winded that day, something had gone. And in retrospect, this became the beginning of the era of domestic terrorism and these insidious attacks and that could be planned by a few people but affects so many.
Richard Bassett: So you've written this symphonic work "Of Thee I Sing" to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. How did this project come about for you?
Leshnoff: I was asked by the maestro, Maestro Mickelthwate, to compose a work specifically for this anniversary. And in correspondence with him, he gave a purview of something he imagined. And he wrote me an email, I'll quote a line or two of it, but he said to write "a piece that transcends the atrocity and transcends death to the point where in this bizarre world, music actually unifies and makes listeners step out of the crazy into a spiritual sphere." So he wanted a piece that was transcendental, and that became the point of inspiration for the work. The work is a 20 to 25-minute piece for full orchestra and choir. And the work is divided into four parts. I'll just call them A, B, A, B—with the A's being the same material and the B's being similar material. But I wanted to unite this piece around a central theme about transcendence and coming together even in the most difficult situation. There's always been a song to me personally which unifies—again, this is my own perspective, my own opinion— but I've always found the hymn "My Country Tis of Thee" to be very beautiful. It's a beautiful melody, beautiful harmonies. And the words are so, so inspiring, so simple but inspiring. As we know, there have been many great people [that have] said great things quoting this speech. And I thought that maybe I would take a crack at doing something musically. The piece is almost like the movie [The] Sixth Sense in that only at the end of the movie do you realize that the end was actually implanted in the beginning, and you go back and watch it the second time you kind of figure everything out. Same thing with this piece. This piece is based on "My Country Tis of Thee" and it's sung by the choir at the end. That's the last B - A, B, A, B. But the previous sections are all based on fragments and mysterious quotations of "My Country Tis of Thee." And the object as a composer is to hide them until finally they emerge into full light at the end. The A sections, they're very fast and kinetic, almost frenetic, without much rest or calm moments, and the B sections have much more repose and calmness to them. So the piece oscillates between these kinetic sections, A, and a moment of repose, B, and then another even more frenetic A and then finally the resolution of B where "My Country Tis of Thee" comes in and its completeness.
Bassett: When you sat down to write this project, was there anything that concerned you or gave you pause?
Leshnoff: Absolutely. I've received many commissions for all sorts of occasions, but this one weighed very heavy on me because I'd be speaking to the city where this happened, maybe even to the people who were there or knew someone there. And this had to be a piece that talks directly. In other pieces, I could be discursive, and I could take my time creating things, so to speak, and shaping things. But here I had to get right to the point. I had to get right to the point in the energetic parts and I had to be soothing. And actually it was very, very scary for me because I've never written a piece that would have such impact so close to home.
Bassett: Do you feel like you kind of embraced that, or did it take you a second to kind of embrace that responsibility or ...
Leshnoff: It took me a few months. And it was something that was always on my mind. Every time I wrote something, I'd step back and say, you know, if I was in Oklahoma City, if I was a resident of that city, if I knew someone who was affected by this, would this speak to me?
Bassett: What do you hope people take away from listening to "Of Thee I Sing"?
Leshnoff: Whenever I write a work, I see my role as someone who opens the door, as a conduit—that my music should take people on a journey to go somewhere. Where they go with it—is it a happy place, or a sad place or a scary place? That's up to the person and their own ideas and feelings in life. But I just want to be the means that that can happen. So wherever someone goes with this piece—if they latch on to the transcendental part, or if they latch onto the more frightening part or into the more soothing part—wherever they go, as long as they go—that's what I'd like.