Monica Langhammer, who died in 2003 at age 38, inspired Leshnoff’s “Monica Songs,” a song cycle commissioned by Sandra Hyslop (her mother), the Friends of Monica and the Carnegie Hall Corp. The work will be performed by soprano Jessica Rivera and pianist Robert Spano on a five-city concert tour that gets under way Oct. 13 in Berkeley, Calif., and culminates with an Oct. 29 performance at Zankel Hall auditorium at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
“Monica was irrepressible and effervescent,” says Leshnoff, who also serves as composer-in-residence of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra.
Langhammer, a Portland, Ore., native, earned a B.A. in fine arts from Webster University, with special honors/awards in printmaking and poetry. Her last two professional positions were at the Margolin Hebrew Academy in Memphis, Tenn., and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
Hyslop, who writes program notes for the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, admired Leshnoff’s work and considered commissioning him to compose a tribute to her daughter. She broached the subject with 75 people who’d known Langhammer and ended up with 139—the Friends of Monica—who contributed to the project.
Once he’d accepted the commission, Leshnoff pored over a box filled with Langhammer’s letters, journals and art. What emerged was his sense of a complex human being: witty and humorous, with existential doubts. “Monica wasn’t defined by what she did for a living,” he says of his subject.
Leshnoff then approached Jessica Rivera to suggest a song cycle—independent songs that together form a coherent narrative.
“I met Jessica when she sang my oratorio, and we discovered we were kindred spirits,” he says. He later dedicated “Monica Songs” to the soprano.
With help from Rivera and her husband, Barry Shafer, he chose verses from the Old Testament Book of Ruth as well as poems by Emily Dickinson and E.E. Cummings. The texts for the fifth and sixth songs were excerpted from Langhammer’s and Hyslop’s correspondence.
“Some of the songs came instantly and some took some sorting out,” Leshnoff recalls. And although he says he ordinarily wouldn’t revise a finished work, he made some changes after Rivera requested a more uplifting ending.
Leshnoff says people who knew Monica Langhammer will be present at all five performances of “Monica Songs,” from coast to coast. “There’s such a strong desire to remember her and celebrate her life,” he says.
Jessica Rivera and Robert Spano will perform Jonathan Leshnoff’s “Monica Song” Oct. 13 at Hertz Hall, Berkeley, Calif.; Oct. 17 at Bailey Hall, Atlanta; Oct. 20 at Smothers Theatre, Malibu, Calif.; Oct. 26, Memorial Hall, Cincinnati; and Oct. 29 Zankel Hall Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, New York.