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
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Composer Aaron Jay Kernis

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

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'ꀙs 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.

It seems there's almost too much invention going on in this new work. Just as you want to savor a particular flavor Kernis introduces, his score is off in another direction, before it can properly register. Certain stretches suggested this should still be considered a work-in-progress; some judicious pruning could be to great advantage. Similarly, Kernis seems to let his fervent reaction to Gabirol blind him to the downright awkward prosody involved in setting phrases like "I know my transgressions have swelled/and my sins are beyond calibration." But the lyricism that does emerge (and its accompanying colors) makes me all the more eager to hear the opera that Kernis has too long been withholding from us.

As baritone solo, Robert Gardner had the most-extensive vocal part, expressing the existential despair and hope that projects the basic arc of the Symphony. Kernis writes punishingly for the role, from bass-scraping depths to an uncomfortable falsetto. He sang with moving fervor but was too often simply drowned by overly thick textures. Hyunah Yu brought a radiant purity to her soprano solos, particularly in the visionary second movement, although she had to contend with a similar problem. Strangely, Kernis reserves his solo tenor (finely sung by Paul Karaitis) for a brief duet with baritone in the third movement.

The Seattle Symphony Chorale contributed a wall of sound and handled its varied roles in the long third movement with a sense of drama. Excellent solo work abounded, in particular from Theresa Benshoof (cello), Michael Crusoe (timpani), Ben Hausmann (oboe), and Scott Goff (flute).

Understandably, Schwarz and the SSO are still feeling their way into a complex work of art, and there's room for fine-tuning. But that's all part of the process of making music for our time, without falling back on comfortable formulas. They deserve high praise for giving Seattle audiences the privilege of being the first to experience a major work by this leading American composer.

After the exertions required by the Kernis, they might have been tempted to go into default mode and phone in the Holst. Instead, what we heard was a freshly invigorated account. Schwarz and the band clearly reveled in building each of Holst'ꀙs incisive cosmic portraits — and in the contrasts between them. Venus lured with beguiling but mysterious harmonies, while Jupiter's brassy pomp was a nice counterpoint to the light-footed frolicking of Mercury.

Several audience members turned their heads upward in rapt astonishment the entrance of the unseen female chorus for the final Neptune movement, seeking its source as if Benaroya had morphed into a planetarium.


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