TGN’s Zach Carstensen talks with Aaron Jay Kernis

Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony premiere Aaron Jay Kernis’s 3rd Symphony this week.  The composer shares his thoughts about the piece and his relationship with Seattle and the Seattle Symphony.

Zach Carstensen: Your Symphony Nr.3, “Symphony of Meditations”, is a number of years in the making.  I may be wrong about this, but initially, the piece was not intended to be a symphony.  When you first put pen to paper, what were you thinking this commission would be?

Aaron Jay Kernis
: Initially I was asked by Seattle Symphony to write a large piece for orchestra of about 25-30 minutes. As my ideas for the work took shape, I could tell I wanted most to write a piece that voices as well. During the year that it was originally to be premiered, the SSO chorus was not available, I asked to work with a group of 12 solo singers, but once I began setting the text it was clear that I really needed a large choir and 2 solo singers, so the premiere was moved to this season, when the choir was available.The piece is about an hour long, so it grew quite a bit in size and scope.


ZC: How involved were Maestro Schwarz, Jeff and Lara Sanderson in directing the development of the composition?  Did they offer ideas of suggestions for you to consider?

AJK: They gave me complete freedom to write whatever I needed to, and other than asking a large work made no specific requests. I’m very grateful for their support during the long process of bringing this work to light.

ZC

: Are you satisfied with the end product?

AJK: Yes, writing it has been a very meaningful experience for me, and I hope it will have resonance for its listeners. This new Symphony is my longest work, and it was written over the last year and a half.

The basis of the symphony is Sephardic.  The Symphony sets medieval Spanish sacred poetry by Solomon Ibn Gabirol.

ZC: What inspired you to use these texts?

AJK: In the mid-1990’s, not long after I met Peter Cole (the translator of these texts) I happened to visit Jerusalem. Peter and his wife Adina showed my wife and I around the city. At the end of my stay he presented me with proofs of his extraordinary translation of the major source text I used, Gabirol’s Kingdom’s Crown – Keter Malkhut – which was being redied for publication by Princeton University Press.  I knew, even at that time, that I wanted to set the text, but had no idea for what sort of work, nor when I could use it. Only  after my parent’s passing did I circle back and re-discover this text and look for others in the same volume of poetry. Kingdom’s Crown is an inexhaustible text, and I could easily imagine setting more of it.

ZC: Is there an intended program for “Symphony of Meditations?”

AJK: The first movement calls out for and invokes the presence of God in everyday life, evoking the enormity and majesty of God, and clearly show the baritone soloist as every Man, singer of songs and shaper of poems in praise of God- but who is very small and very fallible in relation to the enormity and infinite qualities of God. The second is a meditation on the simultaneous awareness of existing in the physical world, longing for spiritual meaning and the mystery of metaphysical thought, and the energetic middle of the movement set a text that stresses the enormity of God, the path of spiritual practice and praise of God from all created beings. The third movement is very dark and intense, hard to describe in brief, since it has so many sections and concerns. It is the longest movement – nearly 40 minutes, long enough to be a symphony by itself. It seeks forgiveness, transformation and redemption after many expressions of difficult, searching emotions.

It’s interesting to write these words, since I’m not a religious person. Whether or not I believe in God, I believe in belief, provided it does no harm to other beings. The private, internal expression of faith is attractive to me and I celebrate it by writing music. Confronting these issues contributed thoroughly to the creation of this piece.

ZC: “Symphony of Meditations” is set in three sections, does the poem, easily divide into three sections – Invocation, Meditation, and Supplication – or did you have to adapt the poem to meet your goals for the piece?

AJK: The first movement and second movements use short sacred texts that are not part of Gabirol’s masterwork, Kingdom’s Crown. I chose, shortened and combined various sections of the larger text for the third and longest movement of the Symphony, and Peter Cole was very understanding about the cutting that I needed to do to turn it into a libretto for the work. Setting this entire poem would probably take 2-3 hours of music! Even though I dream about using other sections of Kingdom’s Crown that I was unable to find room for in this work for all that inspired me.

ZC: Can you describe, how your orchestral writing, tries to match the mood and tone of the sections of the poem?

AJK: Ah, a very complex question, which is has many answers depending upon the section of poetry.

Much of the music is lyrical and is seeks to find a personal, emotional response to the sacred texts.

Some sections are bold and declamatory, others reflective and serene. Serenity and conflict are two qualities much in evidence in the Symphony, and overall the music (and much of music overall) seeks to transcend everyday existence.

ZC: As you wrote “Symphony of Meditations,” what was most important in ultimately shaping the piece – Ibn Gabirol’s poem or your conception of the music?

AJK: These two worked alongside each other, the poem fundamentally influenced the moods of the texts, and the needs of the music helped me choose portion of the text and condense into what I hope is a coherent personal statement.

ZC: I have heard that the poem used for the symphony is often used during Yom Kippur, how does “Symphony of Meditations” reflect Yom Kippur?

AJK: The third movement texts speak in part about asking for forgiveness and mercy from God for our behavior toward other human beings and toward God. Parts of original Hebrew of Gabirol’s texts was incorporated into Yom Kippur prayer books throughout the world. While writing the piece I was very surprised to see nearly exact phrases that I was about to set at High Holiday services!

ZC: You have used Jewish themes in your music before – “Lament and Prayer” comes to mind – how does being Jewish shape your music?  Is it easier, or harder to write music that is grounded in an idiom as personal as culture and religion?

AJK: Over the years I’ve set many spiritual texts from various traditions, navigating around the absolutism of much religion practice. Even though I am not religious I feel drawn to spiritual texts and find inspiration in expressions of faith. Finding and setting these words and being in touch with Peter Cole during the process was a very rich experience for me which resonated strongly with my Jewish upbringing, and especially to my childhood. Music is not easy for me to write, but setting texts help to focus the music’s emotions and phrasing, and using these texts felt very important for me at this point in my life.

Over the years I’ve also been drawn to melodies and musical phrases that evoke Jewish music modes and cantorial singing. This new Symphony embraces these Hebrew texts and the beauty which Peter Cole expressed so exceptionally in English.

ZC: You have had a close relationship with Seattle and the Seattle Symphony over a number of years.  What are you most looking forward to when you come back to Seattle for this premiere?

AJK: Gerry Schwarz has performed my music in New York and Seattle since around 1991 and has been one of the first conductors to champion it over the years. He has been one of the most dedicated advocates of American music over decades. I have dedicated the piece to him and his wife, Jody.

Over the last few years have I spent significant times in Seattle and with the SSO, and I’m really looking forward to seeing this huge work played by the exceptional musicians of the orchestra and the superb soloists and chorus. I’m really looking forward to the great food in Seattle, the coastal air, great bookstores and seeing many friends.

ZC: What other compositions can we expect from you over the next few years?

AJK: I have a trumpet concerto for orchestra without uppers strings coming up that written for trumpet soloist Philip Smith with the New York Philharmonic and the Big Ten Band Association – comprising some of the very best college bands. Also a short work for Orpheus, a piece for soprano, flute, viola and harp, piano and choral pieces and eventually an opera.

The following question was left as a comment earlier in the month.

ZC: What’s the family relationship between the composer and Jay Kernis, the CNN honcho formerly with NPR?

AJK: Jay and  I met a number of years ago, and run into each other from time to time. But we never quite figured out how his family history intersects with mine. It’s likely many Kernis’ originally came from part of Lithuania, but it like many families probably split off and settled in different area, then before the war went to various parts of the world (though particularly the US).

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