Aaron Jay Kernis


In 1983, the New York Philharmonic premiered a work entitled Dream of the Morning Sky that came from the pen of a 23-year-old composer named Aaron Jay Kernis. It would result in his national acclaim, and his star would only grow. He has won honors from ASCAP, BMI, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the American Academy in Rome. Eventually, he went on to be the youngest composer ever to receive a Pulitzer Prize — awarded for his String Quartet No. 2 (“musica instrumentalis”) in 1998. He won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in Music Composition in 2002 for his work Colored Field, making him the youngest composer to win that prize. He would also go on to be commissioned by Disney to ring in the new millennium with his choral symphony Garden of Light. The list of people who have commissioned and performed Kernis’s work runs a veritable who’s who of the classical music world, and his list of honors and awards make him among the most feted composers. He is one of America’s leading lights, having passed from youthful phenomenon to a genuine potent and original artist, possessed of an accessible yet sophisticated voice. “With each new work and new recording,” says the San Francisco Chronicle, “Kernis solidifies his position as the most important traditional-minded composer of his generation. Others may be exploring musical frontiers more restlessly, but no one else is writing music quite this vivid or powerfully direct.” In coming down on a particular side of the now-defunct schism between the avant-garde and the listening public, Kernis safely sides with neither—hewing, instead, to his own personal vision of what is beautiful, flowing easily from moments of dissonance to moments of lyrical resolution. Or, as one critic wrote: “Kernis is at or near the top of a list of young American composers who have made it safe for music lovers to return to the concert hall and enjoy new music that neither panders to nor alienates audiences.” With this as his raison d’etre, Kernis might well be among the true postmodernists.

Born in Philadelphia in 1960, Kernis — largely self taught on violin, piano, and composition — attended the San Francisco Conservatory, the Manhattan School of Music, and Yale University, working along the way with a diverse array of teachers including: John Adams, Charles Wuorinen, Morton Subotnick, Bernard Rands, and Jacob Druckman. His West to East coast trajectory is betrayed in the wild catholic range of his influences — everything from Gertrude Stein to hard-edged rap to the diaphanous musical canvas of Claude Debussy. Coming up when he did, in the 1980s and 90s, he drew from what was around him — the disparate musics and the collapsing aesthetic streams — and, gathering influence from his broad swathe of teachers, forged a rich, distinctive, emotionally immediate music, neither “this” nor “that” but simply and clearly good. The brilliance of his work rests on the exuberant splay of his instrumental palette (even when writing solo or chamber music) crossed with a brooding, poetic depth cut in sharp relief: wild, visceral, violent passages against calm, prayer-like quietude. “Kernis,” Michael Fleming wrote in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, “is a composer of fastidious technique and wide-ranging imagination.”

During the 1980s and 90s, Kernis composed two deeply contrasting symphonies, works that were to him pre- and post-tragic — the tragedy, in this instance, being the first Gulf War of 1991, an event that affected him deeply. His 1989 Symphony in Waves, a large-scale five-movement work, is of a particularly colorful bent, caffeinated and lively, but with passages of overwhelming lyricism; in contrast, his Symphony No. 2 (1991), commissioned by the New Jersey Symphony, is an enraged, topical work, delineated by aggressive, clangorous writing for percussion.

Other orchestral pieces by this accomplished colorist include Symphony of Meditations (2009) with solo voices and chorus; Newly Drawn Sky (2005); Color Wheel (2001); Musica Celestis (1990) for string orchestra; New Era Dance (1992), commissioned to mark the New York Philharmonic’s 150th anniversary, which Edward Seckerson called “… Aaron Jay Kernis' street-smart power-mix circa 1992. Latin salsa and crackmobile rap meets 1950s jazz;” a violin concerto, Lament and Prayer, written in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II and the Holocaust; Goblin Market (1995), a setting of Christina Rosetti’s puckish poem for narrator and large ensemble; and Air for violin and orchestra, commissioned in 1995 by Joshua Bell (originally for violin and piano, but later reconfigured for orchestra and premiered in 1996).

His chamber, solo, and vocal repertoire is equally colorful and varied: Two Movements (with Bells) (2007); the salsa-inspired 100 Greatest Dance Hits for guitar and string quartet from 1993; Quattro Stagioni dalla Cucina Futurisimo (“The Four Seasons of Futurist Cuisine”) for narrator, violin, cello, and piano; and the piano quartet Still Movement with Hymn (1993), commissioned by American Public Radio for Christopher O’Riley, Pamela Frank, Paul Neubauer, and Carter Brey; a song cycle for soprano Renée Fleming, scored for voice and piano and later orchestrated and performed by the Minnesota Orchestra; and the piano suite Before Sleep and Dreams (1990) written for superstar pianist Antony De Mare.

Kernis currently serves as Director for the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute. Each season, in partnership with the American Music Center, up to eight composers are given the chance to hear their music performed by a professional orchestra after a week-long immersion under the trained and experienced eye of the composer. He has taught composition at the Yale School of Music since 2003, and was invited to join the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2011.

He has received the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s Stoeger Prize, a Rome Prize, Guggenheim Fellowship, BMI Prizes, ASCAP Awards, and multiple Grammy nominations. He has served as Composer-in-Residence for Astral Artists, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Minnesota Public Radio, American Composers Forum, and held the post of New Music Advisor of the Minnesota Orchestra for a decade.

— April 2011
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