June 25 2009
Hyunah Yu, soprano
Robert Gardner, bass-baritone
Seattle Symphony Chorale
Gerard Schwarz, conductor
Solomon Ibn Gabirol, trans. Peter ColeMovements:
II. Meditation on Oneness
Aaron Jay Kernis' Third Symphony, which Schwarz commissioned and conducted on June 25–26, sets verse by 11th-century religious poet Solomon ibn Gabirol for orchestra, chorus, and three soloists. The work's forefathers, in terms of harmony and orchestration, are Samuel Barber, Ned Rorem, and, a generation earlier, Howard Hanson. Most compelling are its vocal/instrumental interplay—Kernis can adroitly fashion an ever-shifting accompaniment, always something going on, that doesn't swamp the voices—and its skillfully built choral climaxes. From one such climax (very John Adams in its insistent, perpetual-motion string writing and metal percussion glinting and striking sparks), the soprano, Hyunah Yu, emerges with the line "The skies, which make me think of your Name," surrounded and supported by an organlike halo of sound—the symphony's loveliest moment.
Kernis gives extra urgency to Gabirol's call for divine mercy, in the "Supplication" movement, by setting it for both tenor and baritone (Paul Karaitis and Robert Gardner)—not singing together, but echoing and interweaving with each other. Even cleverer is Kernis' solution to the problem of ending the piece—how to make its exaltation sound fresh compared to the countless previous choral/orchestral pieces that end exaltedly: glissandos for the baritone, sliding from one note up to the next, which bring the closing bars a startling lift.
Gavin Borchert, Seattle Weekly, 01/07/2009
Seattle Symphony’s world premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis’ Symphony No. 3, Symphony of Meditations took its audience on a spiritual journey last night in a setting of solo voices, chorus and orchestra, and centuries-old religious texts.
The new work, inspired by and incorporating Hebrew texts by 11th-century Spanish poet Solomon Ibn Gabirol (translated by Peter Cole), is cast in three movements: Invocation, Meditation on Oneness, and Supplication. This was the second, and final, evening of the world premiere.
Maestro Gerard Schwartz artfully conducts, as soloists Robert Gardner (baritone) and Hyunah Yu (soprano) give solid performances introducing the theme of each movement. The Seattle Symphony Chorale then powerfully echos and builds upon the emotional content of each theme. Tenor Paul Karaitis joins Gardner and chorus in the final movement.
The Invocation movement starts quietly as Gardner invokes God’s presence, “I look for you early, my rock and my refuge,” and builds as the chorus first echoes his invocation and then moves on to praise God’s omnipotence. The invocation ends as Gardner and the chorus conclude, “I’ll praise the name of the Lord so long as His breath in me lives.”
Evoking the delicate warble of a nightingale, Yu begins the Meditation of Oneness movement by describing the skies, the land and her soul as those things that “keep the thought of you always before me.” The chorus again builds on this contemplation until it reaches a loud and joyful proclamation: “The Lord is One.”
“I am ashamed, my God,” Gardner intones as the Supplication movement begins. This is the longest and most emotional-wrenching of the three movements, rising at times to climactic rapture and then plunging to near-whispered despair. The movement reflects man’s acknowledgement of his weaknesses and failings, self-anger and loathing, and then gradually moves to a humble appeal for God’s forgiveness and guidance. The composition ends dramatically as chorus and soloists join in the refrain, “The Lord is our God. The Lord is One, Lord,” ending with a final shout of “One Lord!” that seems to resonate back from the auditorium walls.
Kernis’ Symphony of Meditations, is a complex, ambitious and, overall, brilliant undertaking....there is much to praise about this multi-textured, profoundly spiritual composition...
Marsha Kuykendall , Seattle Performing Arts Examiner , 27/06/2009
Music director Gerard Schwarz has been a long-standing champion of Kernis. The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, who is based in New York, holds the title of "composer-in-residence" with the SSO as part of the Music Alive series, although — to our loss — that doesn't appear to entail actual residency here beyond the rehearsal period. The SSO has performed a couple of Kernis works previously, and Schwarz included Musica Celestis on Echoes, the orchestra's first CD release for the Starbucks label. (Kernis's best-known piece, this luminous transcription of a movement from his String Quartet No. 1 is one of the CD's highpoints.)
The Symphony No. 3 is the composer's first SSO commission. It's a huge, ambitious undertaking, lasting a bit over an hour and calling for an extensive orchestra, large chorus, and three vocal soloists. The original plan was to present the work last season, but Kernis's inspiration began to take shape as a choral symphony, and the scope of the project ballooned. Never a glib composer, he devoted two years to writing the score.
Kernis calls it Symphony of Meditations and sets extensive texts by the extraordinary philosopher-poet Solomon Ibn Gabirol, who lived in 11th-century Andalusia and mixed Neoplatonism and Jewish mysticism. The death of his parents several years ago had prompted Kernis to re-examine his own Jewish heritage, while Jerusalem-based poet Peter Cole's translations brought home the "symphonic" dimension of Gabirol's Hebrew texts, along with their lyrically questing spirituality.
The result is hardly a crowd-pleaser. Rather, Kernis has molded an intense, searching musical experience that challenges performers and listeners alike. Symphony of Meditations unfolds in three movements, of unusual proportions. The second is twice as long as the opening "invocation" but both are dwarfed by the 40-plus-minute third movement ("Supplication"), whose wide-ranging canvas by itself would make for a hefty symphonic work. The text here is drawn from Gabirol's lengthy poem "Kingdom's Crown." Overall, Kernis has assembled a libretto that alternates between a sense of awe at the oneness of God and abject despair over human fallibility.
The model that might first come to mind for this fusion of secular choral symphony with religious-liturgical themes is something like the Symphony of Psalms, but Kernis's work bears no resemblance to Stravinsky: It actually has more in common with the emotional intensity of Bernstein's Jeremiah Symphony and the kaleidoscopic variety Mahler applies to the Faust scene in his Symphony No. 8 (which Schwarz and the SSO performed at the start of the season).
Indeed, Kernis encompasses the Mahler strategy of symphonic expressionism in that work, in which form follows emotional-dramatic function, as well an indigenous tradition rooted in the coloristic eccentricities of maverick American composers. Much of Symphony of Meditations feels like a summa of what the composer has gleaned thus far in his career. At the same time, it's fascinating to see how far Kernis has traveled since the minimalist currents of his Symphony No. 1 from 1989 (Symphony in Waves).
Kernis clearly loves painting with the orchestral-choral canvas, and the imaginative use of his resources is much in evidence. Ominous drum thunderings quickly sketch a sonic image before the solo baritone (the Everyman of Kernis's text selections, who also seems to function as a kind of self-portrait) sings of being "hollowed and shaken out — a ravaged vine," while elsewhere strings divide into the thick harmonies of his "celestial" music, forming a backdrop for the oboe’s exquisitely lyrical phrasing. A solo cello line becomes a kind of cantorial alter ago to the baritone and provides structural markers, and Kernis — who knows how to make his music truly resonate — pits high-decibel dissonances against equally shattering silences.
Thomas May, Crosscut, 27/06/2009
This symphony is written in three movements that create their own liturgical flow, as though they had always been part of a temple cantor's repertory. The text, though, is translated from the Hebrew verses of a medieval Sephardic poet.
The overall theme of this symphony is the relationship of small humans to their infinitely huge God, and Kernis embraces the lopsided nature of this relationship. The third movement, titled "Supplication," is vast, dwarfing the first two movements combined. Tenor soloist Paul Karaitis sat quietly in the back for most of the symphony, while baritone Robert Gardner did most of the solo work. These are not accidents.
Nor is the huge dynamic range of the music itself. At times, the fortissimo of the orchestra and chorus were bursting with so much life, the walls of Benaroya seemed unable to contain the sound. And then, as in the second movement, it settles down to a calm but passionate intimacy where concertmaster Maria Larionoff and soprano Hyunah Yu were trading delicate lines, punctuated by Ben Hausmann's melancholy oboe.
John Sutherland, The Seattle Times, 26/06/2009