NEW YORK — 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.
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."
Kernis explains that even when writing "New Era Dance," he "wondered what its shelf life would be. But through the later '90s, it became my most-performed piece. I think it's important to write what's necessary, and none of us knows the future. I've also found the reaction to a new orchestral work happens over several years.
"If a work is over 10 minutes long, you're lucky if it's performed twice, and if it's over 25 minutes, more performances [after the première] are a miracle."
Indeed, despite a high-profile recording on Virgin Classics, there are no immediate plans for future American concert performances of the large-scale "Colored Field."
Kernis says ruefully, "Most orchestras have a very traditional mindset about programs." To help attitudes evolve, Kernis commutes monthly to a job as the Minnesota Orchestra's adviser for new music, and next year he will be guest composer at the revamped La Jolla, Calif., chamber music festival, run by star violinist Cho-Liang Lin.
Says Lin of Kernis: "It's so interesting to follow Aaron's music; he endlessly fascinates. 'Trio in Red' [a work recently applauded at its New York première] is a fiercer piece than "Air" - it's like Jekyll & Hyde."
Even nightclub singer and Broadway star Ute Lemper is a surprise fan, saying she would love to perform his music: "Aaron Jay Kernis is a composer I enjoy very much. His music is so expressive in itself, I wonder if he could leave room for words."
Kernis typically leaves room for words when explaining his basic musical motivation: "At this time of worldwide reflection and the search for meaning in the wake of [the Sept. 11] tragedy, the power of music is more important than ever.
"Music can allow us to rediscover what is deep inside ourselves, free from the precision of language and the barrage of rhetoric, free from easy answers to impossible questions."
A good selection of compositions by Aaron Jay Kernis is available on recordings:
'Colored Field,' 'Musica Celestis,' 'Air' Virgin Classics
Gifted cellist Truls Mork and conductor Eiji Oue produce classical renditions of some of Kernis's orchestral showpieces.
'Before Sleep and Dreams,' 'Meditation,' 'The Four Seasons of Futurist Cuisine' The Eberli Ensemble Phoenix USA
The Eberli Ensemble - formerly known as the Contrasts Quartet - is a chamber group led by Kernis's wife, the gifted pianist Evelyne Luest, making for a sympathetic program of chamber works.
String Quartets 1 and 2 Lark Quartet Arabesque
Kernis's second quartet, subtitled "Musica Instrumentalis," won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize, but the first quartet, "Musica Celestis," is no less engaging.
'Air for Violin,' 'Double Concerto for Violin & Guitar,' 'Lament and Prayer.' Argo
An all-star group of musicians, including Pamela Frank, Cho-Liang Lin, and Joshua Bell give definitive performances of some of the composer's most popular works.
Kernis: Second Symphony Argo
Conductor Hugh Wolff and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra plumb the passionate depths of Kernis's large-scale Symphony No. 2.
Kernis: 100 Greatest Dance Hits New Albion
A glimpse of the composer in a lighter, more ironic mood. A delight.
Songs of America/Jan Degaetani, Gilbert Kalish Nonesuch
A Kernis setting of a Gertrude Stein poem in a splendid performance by mezzo Jan Degaetani.