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Aaron Jay KERNIS (b. 1960)
Elegy (For Those We Lost)
Yolanda Kondonassis (harp)
Michael Sachs (trumpet)
rec. 16 May 2021, Sauder Concert Hall, Goshen College, Goshen, USA
Streamed on Apple Music
AZICA RECORDS 71341 [7:07]

Elegy (For Those We Lost) is dedicated to the families of those who have died from COVID-19. Aaron Jay Kernis describes his piece as a way to try to offer a measure of solace by sharing a personal, musical expression of grief. It was a natural reaction for Kernis. He had contributed a song to the Minnesota AIDS Quilt Songbook, part of an ongoing collaborative cycle in response to the stigma surrounding, ignorance of, and grief caused by the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Kernis is an American composer, winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy award. His eclectic style has been described as having ‘neo-romantic intensity with exuberant imagination’. More comfortable writing beautiful music than atonal works, he maintains that he has been most influenced by nineteenth-century music, minimalism and impressionism. His music has been compared to that of Mahler, Stravinsky and Bernstein due to its rhythmic drive and the exploration of musical color.

The Elegy was originally composed for solo piano. Kernis has arranged it for orchestra and for other combinations of instruments. This arrangement for harp and trumpet was made at the request of the Grammy-nominated harpist Yolanda Kondonassis. She had heard the original piano version as part of a video tribute to 51 victims of COVID-19 that the composer commissioned.

According to Wikipedia, ‘[Kondonassis] is considered one of the world's premier solo harpists and is widely regarded as today's most recorded classical harpist.’ She made her debut at 18 with the New York Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta. Since then, she has appeared as soloist with major orchestras in the United States and abroad.

The trumpet player on this recording is Michael Sachs, to whom Kondonassis is married. He joined the Cleveland Orchestra as principal trumpet in 1988, and he enjoys an international reputation as a performer, teacher, author and clinician. They premiered this arrangement in June 2021 to great critical acclaim, and have equalled that success in this stunning recording.

Kernis’s Elegy is a song without words. It captures a profound arc of emotions ranging from sadness to triumph, and its poignant melody ascends into a place of beauty and repose. Sachs plays with eloquence and with the smoothest, most gentle of tones. The purity of his sound is equalled by Kondonassis’s gentle accompaniment on the harp. Their playing is a marvel of precision and emotion.

In the ascending passages that lead to the climax of the piece, trumpet and harp unite in ever ascending, spiraling passages. The spaciousness and depth that Kondonassis and Sachs create there, as well as the brief moments of joyous repose that follow, summon the sounds of an entire orchestra, rather than just those of a single trumpet and harp.

Kondonassis summed up the desire to perform Elegy with these words: ‘We’re not doctors or scientists or nurses or policy-makers, but we can play music and that’s how we thought we could contribute some small measure of healing amidst all that everyone’s been through.’ They have done just that.

Rick Perdian

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