"I'm a big admirer of Poe," Minkler says. "I went to the Poe birthday celebrations for years and years. I've been to the grave site and the house, of course, several times. I always feel if only someone had just fed him, given him a good meal. Poe always seemed to be starving."
Minkler's hunger for viola music — this instrument has never received as much attention from composers as the violin or cello — started him on the path to "Dark Bells" several years ago.
A recipient of a $25,000 Baker Artist Award in 2010, as well as a $3,000 Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award a couple years earlier, Minkler hit upon an idea to use his prize money.
"My thought was to approach composers to write more repertoire for the viola," he says. "I started investigating composers, and Jonathan's name kept coming up. There is a depth of emotion to his music that I don't find in other composers, something that he brings — the chords he uses, whatever. So I asked him if he would do this. That he said yes to me was shocking."
Leshnoff felt something of a shock, too, when he heard Minkler's idea.
"I was dumbstruck," the composer says with a laugh. "I thought, 'You gotta be kidding. What lunatic wants a work for choir, orchestra and solo viola?' But Peter prevailed."
Minkler did not climb entirely out on a limb when he proposed such a piece. There are notable precedents, including one from 1973 by American composer William Schuman, Concerto on Old English Rounds (only female voices are used in the choral part).
The chorus in Georgian composer Giya Kancheli's "Styx" from 1999 sings words chosen more for sonic effect or implication than poetic statement. In "Flos Campi," a 1925 work by England's Ralph Vaughan Williams that Minkler will also perform during the Choral Arts program, the chorus doesn't sing any words at all.
"I wanted something meaningful for a text that the chorus would sing," the violist says. "I suggested Poe to Jonathan and gave him a book of the poems. He chose the ones he wanted, and he decided on the form of the piece."
Minkler performed in the world premiere of "Dark Bells" with the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Philharmonic Orchestra (which co-commissioned it), conducted by its music director, Andrew Constantine, in May 2014.
Constantine, former associate conductor of the BSO, will conduct the Baltimore premiere on Oct. 30 with Choral Arts and the Reading Symphony Orchestra (he's music director of that ensemble, too). The program also includes Brahms' "Schicksalslied" (Song of Destiny), which has a Poe-compatible text by Friedrich Holderlin about "suffering mortals" and an "abyss."
Leshnoff, a Towson University faculty member, is much in demand as a composer. His most recent music is imbued with references to Jewish mysticism and spirituality.
He has received commissions from several instrumentalists, chamber groups and choruses, including the Handel Choir of Baltimore. Major orchestras around the country have also sought works from Leshnoff, among them the BSO, Philadelphia Orchestra and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (which will release a recording of his choral work "Zohar" and Symphony No. 2 this fall).
Minkler's proposal took the composer in a direction he found rewarding.
"Poe is not my passion," Leshnoff says, "but he is such an emotional writer. I am fascinated by the way Poe could start with a captivating idea and twist it into something frightening. Typically, when I'm considering texts I just read through a lot of things, and either something speaks to me or not."
In this case, three of Poe's poems spoke strongly to Leshnoff.
Two are from the writer's last years: "The Bells," with its famous reiteration of the word "bells" and its shifting mood from the "crystalline delight" of jingling to a shrieking clamor and clangor; and the autumnal, metaphorical "Eldorado," about an aging knight's search for the fabled land of gold.
The third poem, "Alone," was written much earlier in Poe's life and describes a life set apart from the norm, a lonely and "most stormy life" and the "demon in my view."
The composer devised a five-movement structure. The odd-numbered ones incorporate the viola, the other two don't.
"The more I thought about it, the viola seemed the perfect fit for Poe," Leshnoff says. "Poe has such a dark and mysterious side to him, and that fits the viola, which can sound dark and grainy. The cello would be too protruding, the violin too sweet."
Minkler interprets the viola in "Dark Bells" as representing "the soul of the poet. I'm commenting on the poems," he says of his solo part.
"There is not a whole lot of lightness to Poe's work," the violist adds. "This piece goes from light to dark."
Leshnoff found that transition inspiring.
"Taking listeners on a journey, that's my thing," the composer says. "If people don't sense a journey, I haven't succeeded. Poe's very dark, introspective poetry provides an emotional journey that draws you inward."
If you go
Baltimore Choral Arts Society presents a program of Brahms, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Jonathan Leshnoff at 3 p.m. Oct. 30 at Kraushaar Auditorium, Goucher College, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road. Tickets are $25 to $40. Call 410-523-7070, or go to baltimorechoralarts.org.