Review By Joe Milicia
Born in 1960, Aaron Jay Kernis is one of the more prominent American composers of his generation, known so far mainly for symphonic works, chamber music, and songs for soprano voice. Besides winning numerous prizes and teaching at Yale, he has been the Minnesota Orchestra's advisor on programming of new music for a full decade. Cedille's new disc offers three works for orchestra, two of them world premiere recordings of relatively short pieces and one 40-minute work, the composer's first symphony. (He is currently working on a third.)
If listeners to the 1989 Symphony in Waves are reminded of the music of John Adams, at least in parts of the first and last movements, that may not be a stretch of the imagination: Adams was not only a teacher of Kernis, but also the symphony's dedicatee and the conductor of the world premiere with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (of the first two movements, since there was not sufficient rehearsal time to prepare the whole thing). It's an impressively original work, full of dazzling orchestral effects and varied moods. Loosely speaking, it's program music, but the waves are not necessarily watery ones, as in Debussy's La Mer and countless other sea pieces. According to the composer, he wanted to suggest "waves of sound in addition to those of wind and water... swells and troughs of dynamics, densities, and instrumental color: the ‘sounds' of light broken into flickering bits by water's action."
The work has the overall structure of a classic symphony: a substantial, dramatic opening movement ("Continuous Wave"), a "Scherzo" (so labeled), a slow movement ("Still Movement"), a brief "Intermezzo" followed by a joyful "Finale." Musical patterns recur with transformations in later parts of each movement, but there are no blatantly traditional structures (sonata form, rondo, and the like) beyond, say, a rough ABA structure for the slow movement. The very first bars may call to mind various other watery beginnings--Das Rheingold or La Mer — and later moments seem to echo yet other composers: a snatch from Strauss' Don Juan, a ripple from Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe, a pattern (at the end of "Still Movement") from the "Elegy" movement of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, an echo in the Finale of the famous dotted triplet rhythm of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. But I wouldn't want to speculate as to whether these are conscious allusions or signs of a young man's magpie mind (Kernis was 29 at the time). After all, there is also an odd but somehow fitting bar of boogie-woogie at the end of the Scherzo — a joke indeed.
Symphony in Waves was given its full premiere and subsequently recorded by Gerard Schwarz and the New York Chamber Symphony of the 92nd Street YMCA. Their Argo recording of 1992, with Kernis' first String Quartet as a companion piece, now re-released on the Phoenix label, holds up extremely well. Perhaps, in places like the moody opening of "Continuous Wave," with its lovely cello solo, or the seemingly tragic exclamations of the slow movement's opening, it's more deeply felt and commanding of one's attention than the performance by Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra. But the new recording is full of felicities: surprising orchestral colors throughout, thrilling climaxes (e.g., toward the end of "Continuous Wave"), intricate rhythms brilliantly executed, all revealed by Cedille's first-rate sound. This is a piece rich and complex enough to merit multiple recordings.
The Too Hot Toccata of 1996 was, like the symphony, written for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and is, like any toccata for keyboard or orchestra, a "little hyperactive," to use the composer's description. A sheer virtuoso piece with a somewhat jazzy flavor, the six-minute work features jittery solos for practically every wind instrument, along with what the composer calls a "horribly difficult honky-tonk piano solo." It does slow down for a while in the middle, where the strings are more in command. If the Grant Park Orchestra ever tours, this would be a sensational encore.
Finally (though positioned first on the CD) we have the 2005 Newly Drawn Sky, commissioned for the Ravinia Festival's James Conlon and the Chicago Symphony, but as the CD booklet underlines, here recorded by another Chicago "outdoor orchestra." (It was recorded indoors, however, in the Harris Theatre, along with the Toccata; the symphony was recorded in Orchestra Hall.) The composer calls Newly Drawn Sky "summer evening music," "a lyrical, reflective...reminiscence of the first summer night by the ocean spent with my young twins...and the changing colors of the summer sky at dusk." But this is not exactly a Delius mood piece or Samuel Barber's Knoxville. There are gentle passages, to be sure; I especially a slightly bluesy trumpet solo midway through. But you will find one quite agitated passage and a couple of huge orchestral climaxes that evoke Lulu as much as the Long Island shore. Kernis himself finds a parallel in the music of Sibelius, with its constant transformation of melody; his 18-minute piece "reflects a constancy of change and flux musically and personally."
An incidental bonus on the new CD is the booklet essay by Andrea Lamoreaux, who not only quotes Kernis extensively but also provides some evocative descriptions of her own. Curiously, she associates the violent chords at the beginning and end of the slow movement of Symphony in Waves with a hurricane, with the eye of the hurricane suggested by the movement's quiet middle section, while Mark Swed in the Argo booklet hears more "glacial sonorities" in those violent chords, "while the eerie middle section then seems a hallucinatory floating under water, beneath the turbulent surface." Listeners can have the pleasure of creating their own scenarios.