Aaron Jay Kernis

I have been listening to a re-play of last Saturday’s Promenade Concert, given by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain conducted by Mark Elder. The massive Lennigrad Symphony of Shostakovich was the main work but the concert opened with the first U.K. performance of ‘New Era Dance’ by Aaron Jay Kernis, an American composer I had not heard of before but who is apparently very highly regarded in his own country. The music was fantastic; wild, dissonant but lyrical and with constantly changing rhythms. The 160 members of the orchestra were fully stretched for the six minutes duration of the work, the percussion section employing every known instrument plus several others including a pistol held aloft by one of the younger players. Fiendishly difficult to play and for me highly entertaining, though for another member of the family ‘an awful noise’! Whilst Kernis has written many works including two symphonies and a string quartet, this short piece is understandably his most frequently performed work.

The score must be huge to include so much musical activity.

Mark Elder often addresses his audiences and on this occasion he said that the composer hoped that the work would presage an ‘imperative political and social change’ in the U.S.A. ‘It’s in the score, Elder said to justify the quote and the Promenaders laughed politely and there was a surge of applause. One of the experts interviewed after the performance referred to the fact that Kernis is regarded as a post-modernist, saying ‘that means his music is enjoyable’. I thought it was very enjoyable, proving that music can be fun.

Kernis’s publisher is G. Shirmer Inc. and on their website they claim that 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.’ The San Francisco Chronicle notes that ‘with each new work and new recording, 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’.

I look forward to hearing more of him.