When the Albany Symphony Orchestra’s mentor-composer position opened up for this year, music director David Alan Miller knew just the composer to ask: Aaron Jay Kernis.
“I’ve known him since the ’70s,” Miller said. “He’s had a great career.”
Because the orchestra had never really played his music and was perhaps unfamiliar with his style, Miller asked Kernis to program the Friday and Saturday concerts with some of his own pieces and those by some of his favorite composers, which include Bach, Debussy and Mendelssohn. Kernis also suggested composer Kathryn Salfelder for a world premiere.
This assignment jibes with Kernis’ role as mentor-composer, Miller said. Kernis will work with Miller to choose young composers for the orchestra’s annual American Music Festival in the spring and work with those composers on their pieces. Kernis is the third composer to fill the position after John Harbison and John Corigliano.
Albany Symphony Orchestra
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Troy Savings Bank Music Hall; 3 p.m. Sunday, Zankel Music Center, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs
RELATED: Pre-performance talks with ASO Music Director David Alan Miller, noon Friday at Albany Public Library; 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall; 2 p.m. Sunday at Zankel Music Center.
HOW MUCH: Troy, $66-$19; Zankel, $47-$19, $15 students
MORE INFO: 465-4755, www.albanysymphony.com, cms.skidmore.edu/zankel
Young Pulitzer winner
While Kernis’ name may not be familiar to local audiences, he is famous for something very special: When he was 38, he won the Pulitzer Prize, which still makes him one of the youngest composers to ever win.
“It was a great shock,” said Kernis, who is now 51. “Publishers had sent in my work to the committee every year and I didn’t think I had a chance to win. I was too young.”
When he got the call that he’d won, he and his wife were in the middle of plans to go to a festival in Spain and were heading to the airport. That call was followed by other calls from the papers and media.
“It was a great thrill,” he said, adding that he was literally and figuratively “up in the clouds” when it all sunk in.
He said the Pulitzer Prize made his career official. According to Miller, however, Kernis already had a huge reputation among fellow musicians. He’d studied with John Adams and Charles Wuorinen, but as a student of Jacob Druckman at Yale University he was known as Druckman’s undisputed best orchestrator and a leader in the new romanticism, Miller said. Many of his works were often performed by the New York Philharmonic at new music festivals.
Kernis won several awards, including the Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts, the Rome Prize, and three BMI Student Composer Awards. In 1993 he began his connection to music groups in Minnesota as composer or new music adviser to the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra, the American Composers Forum and as director of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer Institute, a position he still holds.
His work began to appear on programs worldwide with commissions from such soloists as violinists Joshua Bell and James Ehnes, soprano Renee Fleming, pianist Christopher O’Riley and guitarist Sharon Isbin.
He won the Pulitzer for his second string quartet “musica instrumentalis,” which surprised him because he said he thought the Pulitzer committee would have been more interested in his orchestral work. After that, more doors opened for him.
“I kept on being very, very busy,” he said. “I got $5,000 for the Pulitzer, but the money is token. It’s the prize, which is purely for American work. That is the prestige.”
Four years later, he won the coveted Grawemeyer Award for his cello and orchestra concerto “Colored Field.”
“It’s the richest composition prize at $200,000,” Kernis said, “but it’s an international prize. It’s astonishing to be on the list with Boulez and Lutoslawski.”
He said he was pleased and proud and a bit bemused by the committee’s choice because the cello concerto was the second version of the work, which had originally been for English horn and orchestra.
“I guess that version [for cello] spoke to them,” he said.
Kernis’ work has also garnered a Grammy Award nomination, France’s Diapason d’or Palmares and been recorded on several labels, including most recently a song cycle with soprano Susan Narucki (Koch) and another with his orchestral works (Cedille Records).
He continues with a varied schedule of commissions, such as a new trumpet concerto for Philip Smith of the New York Philharmonic and works for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and the Seattle Symphony, as well as teaching at Yale University.
But conceiving an entire program for the ASO was a bit of a new venture, he said. His first thought was of Bach.
“I think he’s the greatest genius of music. It’s inexhaustible,” he said. “His mastery of counterpoint, his voice leading, harmony. He sets the standard for the rest of time. I have 71 CDs of his cantatas that I’ve been buying over the years with the goal to listen to them. I’ve only heard 20.”
Two years ago on a commission from the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Kernis wrote “Concerto with Echoes,” which is a homage to Bach based on his Brandenburg Concerto No. 6. Because the Bach used no violins, neither did Kernis.
“This creates a rich, dark world,” Miller said, adding the orchestra will also play the Bach concerto.
Kernis loves Debussy’s sonic orchestral world with its light, delicate, ecstatic and romantic sounds. He took five of Debussy’s piano etudes and orchestrated them with similar textures and mirrored styles.
“I didn’t know the Debussy but it’s really beautiful,” Miller said.
Kernis chose Salfelder to write a concerto. She is one of his students and a wonderful talent, he said.
“Kate wanted it for saxophone,” Miller said. “It’s a radiant work in six movements and an homage to her mother, who recently died.”
They chose saxophonist Tim McAllister, who is considered one of America’s brightest stars, to solo, Miller said.
He chose Mendelssohn’s “Italian Symphony” as one of his favorite pieces and one that he is particularly fond of, he said.
Miller said he was thrilled with the choices.
“The concert is an extremely varied introduction to Aaron’s world,” he said. “I love his deep musicianship, his sense of the orchestra. His music is deeply serious yet lively and he’s the same as a person.”
Miller will give pre-performance talks at noon Friday at the Albany Public Library, at 6:30 p.m. Saturday from the stage at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall; and at 2 p.m. Sunday from the stage at the Zankel Music Center.
The Sunday concert is also the introduction of the orchestra’s new Sunday matinee Saratoga series, which will include the Feb. 19 and the March 18 concerts.
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