Leonard Lehrman is one of those people who, in the space of a single lifetime, connect many of the different worlds of 20th-century music. He knew and worked with such figures as Leonard Bernstein and Nadia Boulanger. And although he is an American, he spent much of his early career in Europe, living mostly in the German cities of Berlin, Bremerhaven and Heidelberg.
Now Lehrman, who lives in Valley Stream, has won a New York State Council on the Arts Long Island creative arts grant. He is the first composer ever to win the grant in the more than two decades since its inception. Previously, it was always awarded to painters or sculptors. The work he has written, his 230th numbered composition, was conceived for the small ensemble Alba, and is a setting of “The Last Word,” a poem by Australian poet Alex Skovron.
In the poem, Skovron imagines a dystopian world in which language no longer exists, and in lines that are both lyrical and emotional, paradoxically describes the disappearance of the last word ever thought or spoken. Much of Skovron’s work deals with similarly dystopian subjects. In “The Last Word,” he makes persistent use of a poetic device called enjambment, where sentences carry over from one line to the next. This creates a sensation of being out of breath, of running forward, that fits the sense of urgency at having lost the last thing that makes us human.
Lehrman captures this sense in the music, which begins with a fast-rippling, repeated three-bar series of triplets that give the same out-of-breath feeling between desperation and sadness that characterizes the poem.
The Alba ensemble, which specializes in music written before 1800, will give the official premiere of the work on Oct. 14, at a location yet to be determined — either Hofstra University or the Episcopal cathedral in Garden City, according to Lehrman. He has collaborated extensively with Alba, including recent concerts in East Meadow, Oyster Bay and Smithtown. “The Last Word,” makes use of lute, oud (a kind of Arabian soprano lute) and hurdy-gurdy — a hand-cranked organ that sits in the player’s lap. It presented some challenges, Lehrman said, since “its range of volume is somewhere between ‘loud’ and ‘very loud.’”