A composer of grand gestures
Philadelphia-born Aaron Jay Kernis is America's most honored younger composer. Last November he received the world's top international music composition prize, the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award, worth $200,000 and previously given to such famous composers as Toru Takemitsu and Gyorgy Ligeti.Skip to next paragraph
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Last month, Kernis's specially commissioned piece "Color Wheel" was performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra at the opening of the new Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.
Just three years ago, Kernis became one of the youngest-ever Pulitzer prize winners for his Second String Quartet. He's currently laboring on a new opera commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera, due in 2006.
What is the secret of his remarkably quick career rise?
Kernis's music is varied, ambitious, and enjoyable to listen to. His "Air," originally written for violin and piano, has an 18th-century pastoral grace. His Pulitzer prize-winning Second String Quartet opens with a celebratory dance that's an Aaron Copland-style hoedown, as if emphatically rediscovering joy in music.
New York Philharmonic principal cellist Carter Brey, who has often played Kernis's works, says his music can range from the portentous to the ironic. "I like his scope, and the fact that he's not afraid to take chances in tackling huge issues," Mr. Brey says. "He's capable of irony and wit, but won't take cover behind those qualities. There's a lot of passion to his writing, and what ties his disparate pieces together are the grand gestures, the way he'll go for a big romantic statement."
One such romantic effort is "Colored Field" - for which he received the Grawemeyer Award - inspired by a visit to Auschwitz. The (London) Times called it "a deeply felt response to human suffering and the cycle of good and evil ... a hugely impressive score in the coherence of its structure and inventiveness...."
Kernis's Second Symphony is also dark and dramatic, full of echoes from the Gulf War. Yet in an interview from his Manhattan home, Kernis says that these days he's in the mood to write affirmative pieces.
"I want to write pieces that are more consoling, searching but peaceful - not so apocalyptic," says Kernis, an exceedingly soft-spoken person who nevertheless radiates confidence and energy.
Among his lighter and more celebratory works is "The 100 Greatest Hits," with a piano solo "in the style of Jerry Lee Lewis." Asked what he finds interesting about Lewis, Kernis replies, "The personality and energy of the artist. I regard him as a great commercial figure in the mixing of barroom music and blues into a much ... faster, danceable, and energetic kind of early rock 'n' roll."
Kernis is sometimes compared to Leonard Bernstein. He admits, "Bernstein was a very important influence, both in the sense of openness to the mingling of serious and popular culture and, more important, in looking for a kind of visceral energy in music, a kind of grab-you-by-the-lapel experience, a willingness to incorporate material he loved, which is also true of my work."
Some of Kernis's work is linked to a specific time, like "New Era Dance," a symphonic work commissioned for the 150th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic that one British critic described as "power-mix circa 1992. Latin salsa and crackmobile rap meets 1950s jazz."