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An Evolving Technique

Music by
Aaron Jay Kernis,
recommended by

Cedille    CDR 90000 105

Symphony in Waves - Music of Aaron Jay Kernis. Grant Park Orchestra; Carlos Kalmar, conductor. © 2008 Cedille Records

For several years Aaron Jay Kernis has been lauded as one of the most effective contemporary composers. He has received awards, commissions, performances and recordings well beyond the numbers usually associated with musicians of his generation (born 1960). This release provides a chronological cross-section of his work. The symphony, his first, was completed in 1989, Too Hot Toccata in 1996, and Newly Drawn Sky in 2005. The latter two works are world premiere recordings.

As might be expected, the sequence shows an evolving technique. The symphony has the most straightforward unifying theme. Waves of sound dominate the piece. Although the composer disclaims any programmatic intent, these often suggest the movement of water in oceans, rivers and streams. One can easily picture gentle ocean swells in the work's opening statement for strings.

Listen -- Aaron Jay Kernis: Continuous Wave (Symphony in Waves)
(track 3, 0:00-1:26) © 2008 Cedille Records

The style shows more of the influence of the minimalist techniques of composers such as John Adams, one of Kernis's teachers, than the more recent works do.

Listen -- Aaron Jay Kernis: Continuous Wave (Symphony in Waves)
(track 3, 4:20-5:26) © 2008 Cedille Records

Adams could have slipped that into his recent opera, Dr Atomic, with few people noticing. But even this earliest symphony demonstrates Kernis's ability to go his own way, and that way includes incorporating the techniques of many composers and types of music. The stew begins to bubble faster in Too Hot Toccata which, though the shortest piece here, manages to incorporate proportionally longer stretches of tonal uncertainty, more sharply etched melodies and heavier pop influences, all without abandoning the scurrying strings and pulsating orchestra of Adams.

Listen -- Aaron Jay Kernis: Too Hot Toccata
(track 2, 4:14-5:52) © 2008 Cedille Records

It's an exciting, virtuosic concerto-in-miniature for orchestra. Sections and soloists are challenged, and Carlos Kalmar and Chicago's Grant Park Orchestra meet the challenge beautifully.

The most recent piece continues the eclectic trend. Although it is primarily a reflective work, a poetic reaction to a changing sky, the use of dissonance is at times intense and Kernis comes closer to his objective: 'I want everything to be included in music: soaring melody, consonance, tension, dissonance, drive, relaxation, strong harmony and form ...'

Listen -- Aaron Jay Kernis: Newly Drawn Sky
(track 1, 5:24-6:29) © 2008 Cedille Records

Kernis deserves his accolades. Although many composers are today offering a wild mix of styles within individual compositions, he makes it work as well as anyone. The juxtapositions fit rather than sounding arbitrary. Beyond quirks of style, he orchestrates with fascinating effect and builds ecstatic climaxes. And below an undeniable surface appeal there is enough going on to reward repeated hearings. Warmly recommended.

Copyright © 1 January 2009 Ron Bierman, San Diego, USA




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Record Box is Music & Vision's regular series of shorter CD reviews