Two of the most famous names in the classical canon — Beethoven and Ravel — appear on the program for Seattle Symphony’s upcoming livestream on Feb. 25. But the concert’s opening work was written by a composer, currently 36 years old, whose boldly individual, exquisitely crafted music sounds completely at home in their company.
Hannah Kendall is a name you’ll want to remember. It was only two years ago that the young British composer’s work was first played by an American orchestra, when Berkeley Symphony gave the world premiere of Kendall’s “Disillusioned Dreamer,” which it had commissioned. Soon after, Seattle Symphony presented the U.S. premiere of her intensely evocative and haunting “The Spark Catchers,” an orchestral piece inspired by a poetic tribute to exploited workers in a 19th-century matchmaking factory.
The momentum of Kendall’s career has only accelerated. Within the past year, the BBC Proms opened its live concert series with a newly commissioned work and the Royal Opera House in London performed her debut opera, “The Knife of Dawn,” inspired by the real-life story of the Guyanese activist and poet Martin Carter. And last month brought the world premiere of her new orchestral piece, “Where is the chariot of fire?,” by the Hallé Orchestra.
On Feb. 25, Seattle Symphony presents another U.S. premiere of a Kendall piece with its performance of “Kanashibari.”
“Kanashibari” dates from 2013 and is among the composer’s earliest pieces. “I have great fondness for it,” says Kendall in a Skype call from London. “I probably wouldn’t write in the same way now, but there are lots of things in the music that are still present in my approach today.”
Born in London to first-generation immigrants from Guyana, Kendall grew up in a musical household and took violin lessons from the age of 4, later gravitating to vocal performance. But she never contemplated the possibility of composing before she reached the age of 20.
“I hadn’t even played music by a woman or by anyone of color until I got to university at Exeter, where new music was such a part of the ethos. The decision to become a composer was unexpected.” She was encouraged to apply to the Royal College of Music and began honing her skills methodically — trying to make up for lost time, as Kendall sees it.
A few years ago, Kendall relocated to New York City as a doctoral fellow in composition at Columbia University. She spent the spring lockdown in New York but returned to London to be with her family as the coronavirus crisis worsened and is unable to travel to Seattle for the upcoming performance.
She says the June 2019 concerts with Seattle Symphony and “The Spark Catchers” were “one of the best weeks artistically that I’ve ever had. … I felt I was able to build up a fantastic relationship with the orchestra. I fell in love with Seattle and its audiences.”
While it deploys a smaller orchestra than “The Spark Catchers,” “Kanashibari” achieves a marvelous array of colors with chamber forces of mostly winds and strings.
“Kanashibari” is the Japanese word for sleep paralysis, caused by disruption of the sleep cycles. “Your brain wakes up before your body and you’re unable to move,” Kendall says. “It’s a terrifying situation.”
The hallucinations that can result inspired Kendall to imagine a musical depiction of “an episode of sleep paralysis.” She explains that the piece presents “musical cells that run away from each other but eventually catch up and snap back together at the end.”
“What I love about Hannah’s work is that her music has such a pure identity,” says Jonathon Heyward, who will guest conduct the Feb. 25 concert. The 28-year-old maestro made his Seattle Symphony debut leading the 2019 program that included “The Spark Catchers.” Thanks to the success of that collaboration, Heyward has since become one of Kendall’s foremost interpreters.
Speaking in a phone interview shortly after arriving in Seattle to undergo a mandatory quarantine in advance of the concert, Heyward says Kendall’s music has an immediately recognizable signature.
“You can instantly tell that a piece is in her language. It’s in the rhythmic pulse, the creation of space within a narrative,” he said. “With Hannah’s music, you really understand the journey and the narrative behind everything.”