KERNIS: Symphony in Waves; Newly Drawn Sky; Too Hot Toccata – Grant Park Orchestra/ Carlos Kalmar, conductor – Cedille CDR 90000 105, 64:00 **** [Distr. by Allegro]:
Aaron Jay Kernis (b. 1960) is a composer who has never hesitated to display brilliantly and often flagrantly his predilection for eclectic composition. The world is his compositional oyster, and he has stated many times that “everything” should be included in music, from gripping drama to subtle nuances of the most delicate emotions, humor, tragedy, passion–everything. This well-played and well-recorded CD from Cedille features two premiere recordings and one new recording of his 1989 Symphony in Waves.
The Symphony lacks the solid footing of the two later works on this disc, though it should come as no surprise that there are some minimalist meanderings present from one who studied with John Adams, though Charles Wuorinen and Jacob Druckman also figure into his educational pedigree. The title of this work refers not only to waves of water or waves of air, but to waves of sound as well, “swells and troughs of dynamics, densities, and instrumental color.” He was trying to define for himself what the symphony meant in a personal manner at that point in his development, and this major work of 40 minutes and five movements explores different facets of “waves” in their various guises, not a programmatic piece as much as programmatic influences into the world of the abstract. It is clear that he succeeds; if you just keep the title in mind you will be amazed at how well his intentions are understood throughout this piece, even though to my mind there are a few lapses in concentration in several spots.
Newly Drawn Sky is a reflective piece calling to remembrance the first summer night at the ocean spent with the composer’s six-months-old twins. It is a highly effective and quite beautiful tone poem (though Kernis might reject that appellation) that presents various aspects of that experience in orchestral guise. This effervescent, sparkling work shows where the composer has come recently (2005), and makes one clamor for more of the same. Too Hot Toccata (1996) is from the last of his St. Paul Chamber Orchestra residency days, and was meant as a sort of mini-Concerto for Orchestra in the manner of how Bartok crafted his own work of that name, displaying considerable virtuosic functionality with a diverse and interesting orchestral background at the same time. It is brassy, jazzy, and makes a great concert opener.
This is fine outing by the ever-reliable and always challenging Grant Park Orchestra of Chicago with its conductor Carlos Kalmar. [Also Music Director of our Portland Symphony…Ed.] I cannot speak to the merits of the previous recording of the Symphony with Gerard Schwarz and the New York Chamber Symphony, but I find it difficult to believe that either sound or performance could best this one. Recommended generally and for those looking for some wonderful modern music of great substance.
— Steven Ritter