AARON JAY KERNIS: Three Flavors, Two Movements, Ballad(e) out of the Blue(s) – Superstar Etude No. 3—Andrew Russo, piano—James Ehnes, violin—Albany Sym. Orch./ David Alan Miller—Naxos 8.55971, 53:52 ****:
Aaron Jay Kernis (b. 1960) won immediate success as a composer at the tender age of 23 when the New York Philharmonic premiered Dream of the Morning Sky in 1983. But conductor Zubin Mehta thought the work was vague, stopped the work in rehearsal and complained to the composer. Kernis’ reply was, “Just read what’s there.” It was an audacious retort to a world famous conductor, but it won him instant fame in the musical world. More than thirty years later Kernis’ music is well-respected and often performed. His String Quartet No. 2 (Musica Instrumentalis) won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1998, and in 2002 he won the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition and the Nemmers Prize in 2012.
His output is divided equally between orchestral and chamber works, and he writes in a Neo-Romantic style that includes imaginative use of color, liberal doses of melody, rhythmic drive, and “theatrical outbursts from individual performers.” He is not afraid of infusing rock, salsa, and jazz into his music as vibrant exclamation points—as in his 100 Greatest Dance Hits. His musical roots include California minimalism (John Adams) and many other influences that result in audience-friendly music that has been recorded on over 25 CDs.
Kernis’ interest in musical variety is reflected in Three Flavors (2002/2013) which the composer compares to his penchant for finding “cuisines and restaurants new to me as often as possible…” Although it started out as a Concerto for Toy Piano and Orchestra, it evolved into a work for grand piano and a primarily percussive orchestration. The first movement—Ostinato begins with a “clang and off-overtone structure of the toy piano” and continues with a rhythmically spirited dialogue between piano and orchestra. Indonesian gamelan sounds—repetitive motives, and the use of metallic percussion characterize this somewhat chaotic but stimulating movement. Lullaby-Barcarolle is a dreamy, melodic palette cleanser that was inspired by the birth of the composer’s twins. “I thought constantly of the soothing, fluid journey that they were undertaking,” the composer commented. After an unsettled episode, the movement ends in a glorious state of tranquility. Blue Whirl provides a saucy jazz and blues inflected romp that will bring smiles to those who revel in Gershwinian Americana. Yet, a nocturnally expressive middle section adds contemplative variety to the composer’s eclectic musical tapestry.
Two Movements (with Bells) (2007) honors the composer’s father, who died in 2004. His childhood was filled with jazz, American and popular songs of the ‘40s and ‘50s. This work undergoes multiple moods and speeds—searing lyricism, mournful remembrance, funky ebullience. Yet, there’s an undertone of melancholy in the first section, beautifully played by violinist James Ehnes. The second section, A Song for My Father, is a melodious ode punctuated by intense interludes. The bells in the title aren’t explicit, but the pianist Andrew Russo imitates them—whether “funereal bells or bells of distant memory.”
Ballad(e) out of the Blue(s) – Superstar Etude No. 3 pays homage to three famous pianists—Jerry Lee Lewis (early rock and roll), Thelonious Monk (bebop) and George Gershwin (classical blues).
Kernis filters these diverse genres through a classical lens and pianist Andrew Russo combines the vernacular styles of these pianists with other classical influences (from Chopin to Messiaen). It’s the most indistinct work on the CD, but it also is intriguing. Performances and recording are exemplary. Another disc that showcases the wide-ranging vision of American music being written today.