Ludovic Morlot conducts the Seattle Symphony and soloist James Ehnes in a program of renowned American composer Aaron Jay Kernis’ new work, as well as Debussy’s “Printemps” and Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony.
How is the current political environment affecting the work of American artists?
This week’s Seattle Symphony concerts offer one very recent example. The orchestra will give the U.S. premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis’ Violin Concerto, conducted by music director Ludovic Morlot and featuring James Ehnes as the soloist.
The rest of the program, devoted to a “spring awakening” theme, includes Debussy’s “L’enfant prodigue” and, as a harbinger of spring, Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (“Pastoral”).
Seattle Symphony: Aaron Jay Kernis’ Violin Concerto
With Ludovic Morlot, conducting, and violinist James Ehnes, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, noon Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday (March 16-18) at Benaroya Hall, Seattle; tickets from $22 (206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.com).
The concerto is the SSO’s most significant new commission by an American composer this season. But Kernis found himself stalled as he was working on the last movement in November. “I was composing it when the U.S. presidential election happened, and there were weeks when I could not write a thing,” he said in a recent phone interview from his home in New York.
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While Kernis has reflected on contemporary issues in other works — images of the Gulf War directly influenced his Second Symphony (1991) — the Violin Concerto itself has no program and is “unpolitical,” he says. But the overall structure he’d designed for the piece required a fast, upbeat conclusion.
“I was so affected that I just couldn’t do it,” he said. “Given the mood of the time, it took me a while to get back to the ideas I’d had in mind. But I knew I had to wrest myself out of my postelection torpor, that I needed to write this scherzo.”
His imagination kicked back into action, and Kernis produced a hyper-energetic finale he has titled “Toccatini” — playing on the Baroque-era model of a fast virtuoso piece (“toccata”) and “martini.” The result is a dizzying concoction that evokes jazz and Stravinsky.
Kernis, 57, won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1998 for “Musica Instrumentalis,” a string quartet that reflects the composer’s rethinking of musical ideas from the Baroque. His Violin Concerto also turns to Baroque forms for its two outer movements, while the middle — which he composed first — alludes to blues and the French modernist Olivier Messiaen.
In 2009, SSO conductor laureate Gerard Schwarz premiered “Symphony of Meditations,” a large-scale work for orchestra and chorus to which Kernis set poetry by a medieval Sephardic mystic. Of the four orchestras that co-commissioned the Violin Concerto, Kernis says he knows the SSO best on the basis of that collaboration.
Kernis dedicated his Violin Concerto to James Ehnes, artistic director of the Seattle Chamber Music Festival. Because Ehnes has been a fixture at SCMS for more than two decades, area music lovers tend to associate the violinist with chamber music above all, though he is also an internationally acclaimed concert soloist.
A decade ago, the BBC Proms commissioned Kernis to write a violin-piano duo for Ehnes: “Two Movements (with Bells).” Their first collaboration, it was a memory piece that paid homage to his late father’s love of jazz and midcentury American popular song. A friendship developed, and Ehnes eventually asked for a concerto.
Along with Ehnes’ superb technique, Kernis says he especially admires his “adaptability and personality. James plays Mozart so beautifully, with such warmth, but doesn’t distort the music. I think of him as a classicist.”
As he composed, recalls Kernis, his original concept was that the concerto would be more “Apollonian.” “I initially started in a more classical vein but got pushed in this Dionysian direction of hyper-virtuosity. Little cadenzas are spread throughout the piece. I really wanted to put James in the central role.”
Ehnes points out that the concerto has “all of Aaron’s trademarks: lyricism, extreme — and I mean extreme — virtuosity, fascinating chromaticism and strikingly colorful orchestration. I think my favorite quality in his music is that it speaks very honestly to the listener, despite often being very complex.”