An intense, searching world premiere at the Symphony

The orchestra commissions and debuts a powerful new symphony by Aaron Jay Kernis, a summa of this major composer's work to date
Composer Aaron Jay Kernis

Composer Aaron Jay Kernis Seattle Symphony

What should orchestras be doing today?

However much lip service this essential question gets, too often what ends up prevailing is the status quo — even if it's in trendily repackaged formats. But Thursday night's Seattle Symphony program offered an encouragingly risk-taking answer.

Here was an example of this prominent cultural institution serving as a dynamic laboratory for contemporary creativity alongside its role of curating the past. The concert's entire first half was devoted to the world premiere of the Symphony No. 3 by American composer Aaron Jay Kernis. As a counterweight to this focus on the unknown, the reassurance of a familiar blockbuster filled out the second half, with Gustav Holst's The Planets doing the honors. Note: the Kernis symphony is replaced by Beethoven's first symphony on tonight's (June 27) bill.

Music director Gerard Schwarz has been a long-standing champion of Kernis. The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, who is based in New York, holds the title of "composer-in-residence" with the SSO as part of the Music Alive series, although — to our loss — that doesn't appear to entail actual residency here beyond the rehearsal period. The SSO has performed a couple of Kernis works previously, and Schwarz included Musica Celestis on Echoes, the orchestra's first CD release for the Starbucks label. (Kernis's best-known piece, this luminous transcription of a movement from his String Quartet No. 1 is one of the CD's highpoints.)

The Symphony No. 3 is the composer's first SSO commission. It's a huge, ambitious undertaking, lasting a bit over an hour and calling for an extensive orchestra, large chorus, and three vocal soloists. The original plan was to present the work last season, but Kernis's inspiration began to take shape as a choral symphony, and the scope of the project ballooned. Never a glib composer, he devoted two years to writing the score.

Kernis calls it Symphony of Meditations and sets extensive texts by the extraordinary philosopher-poet Solomon Ibn Gabirol, who lived in 11th-century Andalusia and mixed Neoplatonism and Jewish mysticism. The death of his parents several years ago had prompted Kernis to re-examine his own Jewish heritage, while Jerusalem-based poet Peter Cole's translations brought home the "symphonic" dimension of Gabirol's Hebrew texts, along with their lyrically questing spirituality.

The result is hardly a crowd-pleaser. Rather, Kernis has molded an intense, searching musical experience that challenges performers and listeners alike. Symphony of Meditations unfolds in three movements, of unusual proportions. The second is twice as long as the opening "invocation" but both are dwarfed by the 40-plus-minute third movement ("Supplication"), whose wide-ranging canvas by itself would make for a hefty symphonic work. The text here is drawn from Gabirol's lengthy poem "Kingdom's Crown." Overall, Kernis has assembled a libretto that alternates between a sense of awe at the oneness of God and abject despair over human fallibility.

The model that might first come to mind for this fusion of secular choral symphony with religious-liturgical themes is something like the Symphony of Psalms, but Kernis's work bears no resemblance to Stravinsky: It actually has more in common with the emotional intensity of Bernstein's Jeremiah Symphony and the kaleidoscopic variety Mahler applies to the Faust scene in his Symphony No. 8 (which Schwarz and the SSO performed at the start of the season).

Indeed, Kernis encompasses the Mahler strategy of symphonic expressionism in that work, in which form follows emotional-dramatic function, as well an indigenous tradition rooted in the coloristic eccentricities of maverick American composers. Much of Symphony of Meditations feels like a summa of what the composer has gleaned thus far in his career. At the same time, it's fascinating to see how far Kernis has traveled since the minimalist currents of his Symphony No. 1 from 1989 (Symphony in Waves).

Kernis clearly loves painting with the orchestral-choral canvas, and the imaginative use of his resources is much in evidence. Ominous drum thunderings quickly sketch a sonic image before the solo baritone (the Everyman of Kernis's text selections, who also seems to function as a kind of self-portrait) sings of being "hollowed and shaken out — a ravaged vine," while elsewhere strings divide into the thick harmonies of his "celestial" music, forming a backdrop for the oboe’s exquisitely lyrical phrasing. A solo cello line becomes a kind of cantorial alter ago to the baritone and provides structural markers, and Kernis — who knows how to make his music truly resonate — pits high-decibel dissonances against equally shattering silences.


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