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Aaron Jay KERNIS (b.1960)
Newly Drawn Sky (2005) [17:51]1
Too Hot Toccata (1996) [5:53]1
Symphony in Waves (1989) [39:54]2
Grant Park Orchestra/Carlos Kalmar
rec. 29-30 June, 2007, Harris Theater for Music and Dance, Millennium Park, Chicago1, 4-5 August, 2006, Orchestra Hall, Chicago2
CEDILLE CDR90000105 [64:00]
Experience Classicsonline

We can all think of composers who give eclecticism a bad name – though perhaps it would be invidious and inappropriate to offer my own nominations here. Happily Aaron J. Kernis is a composer who gives eclecticism a good name. At different points in listening to the music on this present CD a hearer might very well think of, say, John Adams or Ravel, of Stravinsky or Sibelius, or of figures from the traditions of jazz and rock, or for that matter of Berg. But this is not merely the music of skilled pastiche or of collage; Kernis has understood the manners he borrows (they are all part of the available musical language and he evidently finds it natural to draw on all of them) and we get fully integrated, coherent works, not mere assemblages of undigested imitation.

The longest work here is Symphony in Waves, written in 1989 and already recorded once before in 1992, by Gerard Schwarz and the New York Chamber Symphony (on Argo ZRG4362872, reissued as Phoenix PHCD165, see review). I haven’t heard the earlier recording, so can make no comparisons. The present performance certainly has plenty going for it – not least a vivid recorded sound. The ‘Waves’ of the work’s title (and we should note that it is a Symphony in Waves not a Symphony of Waves) are to be understood not just as phenomena of the sea, rather as the movements of all kinds of energy, with the concomitant swells and troughs, regularities and irregularities, changes of density and the like; one might think just as well of sound waves, brain waves or electrical wave patterns as of the movements of the sea. The work explores the principles of waves rather than mimicking the external form of any single kind of wave. It is made up of five consistently interesting movements. The opening movement, ‘Continuous Wave’, has a considerable dramatic intensity and in its insistent repetitiveness (though the music, when heard more than once, begins to sound rather less repetitive than it did the first time round) reminds one that Kernis studied with Adams. The second movement, ‘Scherzo’, is full of chirping interchanges between violins and violas, wind and brass, the whole seeming far more fragmentary than the first movement, altogether less insistent; but it eventually evolves into a unity, as if the cells of an organism have been allowed to coalesce of their own free will; indeed, by the end of the movement the initial ‘fragments’ have achieved a kind blues-influenced coherence. In the third movement, ‘Still Movement’ there is a renewed sense of drama, with an opening full of foreboding, followed by a rather forlorn passage for strings and a briefly serene interlude for solo flute; but the threatening presence of the movement’s opening returns, aggressively percussive, before a quite close. A wave, it seems, has passed over and through us and left us where we were, but altered by the experience. ‘Intermezzo’ is the briefest movement and offers a pause of edgy calmness, before the ‘Finale’ returns us to insistent energy, with surging waves of orchestral sound, some forceful writing for the trumpets and also some of the fragmentation of phrase which characterised the second movement. The whole offers a compelling journey across a varied but coherent musical landscape, which one completes with the sense that what one has listened to has encompassed a diversity of emotions and structures but has had a larger coherence. That one has, in other words, been listening to a symphony.

Too Hot Toccata is a kind of concerto for orchestra with challenging passages for each section of the orchestra; here, the jazz structures and idioms which were part of the mixture in the Symphony in Waves have a greater prominence. The musicians of the Grant Park Orchestra seem to meet all the demands that Kernis places upon them – and to enjoy the exercise. Though not pretending to any great profundity, this makes an excellent orchestral showpiece and there is no good reason why the listener shouldn’t enjoy it too.

Newly Drawn Sky is the most recently composed of the three pieces on this CD. It is an extended lyrical piece inspired, the composer tells us, by “the changing colors of the summer sky at dusk”. Kernis’ use of the orchestra is inventive, and his music embraces dark clouds, as it were, as well as the lambency of sunset. There is an open- air quality to the music and an appropriate sense of scale.

Glyn Pursglove



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