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,
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.
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.