“Symphony of Meditations” premiered in SSO season finale

The Seattle Symphony subscription season ended Thursday and Friday night much as it began, with a large-scale choral symphony. In September, the piece Schwarz and the orchestra put on display for Seattle was Mahler’s 8th Symphony. Thursday and Friday, the SSO took on a brand new piece by the American composer Aaron Jay Kernis.

A few years ago the Seattle Symphony and Lara and Jeff Sanderson commissioned Kernis to compose a compact, new piece of music for chorus and orchestra. Originally the work was scheduled for the 2007/2008 season. However, as Kernis was writing the piece, the size and scope of the piece grew and the premiere was delayed so Kernis could put the finish touches on what would become his 3rd Symphony — “Symphony of Meditations.” Like the 8th Symphony, vocal music is at the core of Kernis’s new piece. “Symphony of Meditations” debuted Thursday night alongside Gustav Holst’s popular orchestral suite “the Planets.”

Kernis’s piece is driven by a poem by Solomon Ibn Gabirol. Set in three movements, the symphony covers familiar spiritual themes: God’s presence, meditation, and forgiveness for transgressions. What quite possibly was unfamiliar to the audience was the poem and symphony’s Jewish foundation. Gabirol’s poem is used during Yom Kippur services. For Jews, Yom Kippur is a sacred Day of Atonement and forgiveness.

Listening to Kernis’s symphony I was struck by how much the music and singing reminded me of other Jewish composers who have wrestled with similar themes. Bernstein’s fist shaking “Kaddish” Symphony came to mind as much as Ernest Bloch’s meditative and neglected “Sacred Service.”

The “Symphony of Meditation’s” three movements reflect these moods and many more. There is reverence, thoughtfulness, and in one of the most powerful moments for me an admission of imperfection and a request for forgiveness. Deep in the third movement the baritone – in this case Robert Gardner – sings:

“My God I know my transgressions have swelled and my sins are beyond calibration; but I bring them to mind, like a drop in the sea – confessions and hoping to quiet the noise of the waves and the breakers against their reefs, that you in the heavens will hear and forgive me.”

As the baritone sings this simple, yet entirely human lament, the principal cello provides doleful embellishment.  It is one of the most moving parts of the entire symphony and I hope to hear it again.

Kernis has constructed a major new symphony that gives notice to everyone that the form is not dead. The musical language is lyrical and at times soaring, reaching toward something holy. Other times there is fragility.  Throughout there is never any doubt that the “Symphony of Meditations” is nothing less than a serious and worthy composition.

With any new piece of music there is no guarantee it will ever be played again. I hope this isn’t the case for the “Symphony of Meditations.” Kernis has written a winning piece with an easy to understand message that deserves to be played again. For Kernis, he joins a select group of living composers who have found a way to successfully write symphonies that are exciting but not old-fashioned.

The second half was Gustav Holst’s “the Planets.” Seven planets (except Earth and Pluto) are set to music. Schwarz’s tempos were fast and there were missteps in the playing during Friday’s performance. The brass section seemed fatigued after the hour-long “Symphony of Meditations.” I remember a better performance by the orchestra a few years earlier that was coupled with Schumann’s Piano Concerto. Still, to close the season, the SSO picked a piece that undoubtedly will have audiences thirsty for more when the orchestra comes back in September to start the 2009/2010 season.

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