About this Recording
8.559711 - KERNIS, A.J.: 3 Flavors / 2 Movements (with Bells) / Ballad(e) out of the Blue(s), "Superstar Etude No. 3" (Russo, Ehnes, Albany Symphony, Miller)

Aaron Jay Kernis (b. 1960)
Three Flavors • Two Movements (with Bells) • Ballad(e) out of the Blue(s) – Superstar Etude No. 3


The music of Aaron Kernis has evolved tremendously since he burst onto the scene in his mid-twenties with the world première of “dream of the morning sky” by the New York Philharmonic and the 1984 Rome Prize. Having lived in New York City for most of the 1990s, I noticed Aaron turning up frequently at concerts all over town. It was clear that despite the tremendous number of influences and inspirations evoked by his music to date, Aaron was still devouring new musical experiences and languages. He was still continuing to stretch his musical voice. Having worked with Aaron and his music for almost two decades at this point, I have come to deeply appreciate the arc of his musical language. From early works that referenced pop music, juxtaposed Neo-Romantic tonality with Impressionistic colour and called for theatrical outbursts from instrumental performers, Aaron’s work has shifted towards evocations of progressive jazz and tips of the hat towards composers as diverse as Elliott Carter, Charles Ives and Olivier Messiaen. Aaron is a pianist, so his understanding of the instrument is extremely acute—particularly his sense of the limitations of what a physical pianist with two arms and ten fingers can accomplish on the instrument. I find that he is often comfortable right at the edge of those limitations! However, that is what makes his music so highly satisfying for both the performer and the listener. Aaron demands the same level of dedication from the performer that he demands of himself as the creator. He brings an immense passion to his craft. He is an extraordinary colourist, not just in the large orchestral works for which he is most known, but in his smaller scale chamber and solo works such as the two featured on this album. I hope that you enjoy listening to these works as much as we enjoyed performing and recording them. I believe this record carves a portrait of Aaron Kernis’ musical stance in the first decade of the 21st century. But no doubt, his music will continue to evolve…

Andrew Russo

Three Flavors

Three Flavors began its life as one of the few (maybe the only at that time) concertos for Toy Piano and Orchestra, written for Margaret Leng Tan and the Singapore Symphony in 2002. Even with amplification, the small instrument was understandably overwhelmed by the large orchestra, and after hearing the première I’d often “toyed” with adapting the piece for grand piano. This new (and final) version was premièred by Andrew Russo and the Albany Symphony in October 2013.

When I dine out I like to try cuisines and restaurants new to me as often as possible, without repeating dishes and cooking styles for a while—never the same cuisine in the same week if I can help it! This concerto is somewhat like a tasting of three different meals or characters, hence the title. I don’t overtly try to tie all the movements together by trying to relate their flavours, musical ideas, motives or harmonies, but I trust that my own voice can be heard through it all.

The first movement, Ostinato, is the most indebted to the clang and odd-overtone structure of the toy piano, and is directly influenced by sounds from Indonesian gamelan. This is apparent in the repetitive motives, modal harmonies and especially the use of many sorts of metal percussion that complement the solo piano through much of the movement. After all the motoric music reaches its apex, the movement ends with a kaleidoscopic closing section that winds down as it layers many melodies and motives in an increasing haze.

Lullaby-Barcarolle has gentle, limpid, and “French” qualities that are far more relaxed and melodic than in most of the angular and precise 1st movement. It was written shortly before my twins were born, and while writing I thought constantly of the soothing, fluid journey that they were undertaking. After the songful opening lullaby, often for piano alone, turbulent music surges then recedes as the initial music returns in warmer, more emotional tones.

The final movement, Blue Whirl, is more distinctly “American” in its playful and edgy qualities—which embrace jazz and “blue” harmonies. A lyrical middle section and orchestral tutti precede a solo piano cadenza that moves from wistful to declamatory, before bringing back the opening music and developing an increasingly whirling, rhythmically insistent drive. Overall, Three Flavors features the percussion section of the orchestra in a very significant role, nearly making it a concerto for piano, percussion and the rest (which includes electric guitar in the orchestral fabric).

I’m very grateful to Andrew Russo, whose enthusiasm and support enabled this new adaptation of the work to come to fruition, and whose virtuosity and flair demanded a total re-conception of the piano part.

Two Movements (with Bells)

Two Movements (with Bells) is a memory piece in honour of my father, Frank Kernis, who passed away in 2004. His favourite music was jazz and American popular songs of the ’40s and ’50s, and while I was growing up there was a lot of blues and jazz playing around the house. After feeling distanced from that music for a number of years, since my father’s death I’ve been surprised to see its influences seeping back into my work, and have become increasingly aware of how jazz has implicitly marked my emotional and physical experience of music. I’m rediscovering how many elements in my work arise out of improvisation, the soaring and emotional melodies of mid-20th century ballad singers and even the rawness of the blues.

But this work is essentially introspective and personal in character. Notwithstanding all the virtuosic and rhythmic music, it varies a great deal in mood, from exuberance, intense lyricism, desolation, emotional distance to melancholy and mournfulness. More chromatic than much of my lyrical music, the two movements share a tendency toward frequent expressive shifts, contrasts in mood and speeds and an improvisatory impetuousness. This comes in part out of free jazz and an expressionistic take on the common variation form of standard-based jazz. Certainly there are other influences from classical and 20th century music at the heart of this work, but I’ve been aware of their formative role in my compositional voice for much longer.

While the first movement begins Poco Adagio, it is filled with restless, often uneasy lines and silences, which often break into wild figurations and high speeds. It is more fast than slow, while the second movement, A Song for my Father, is the opposite—mostly lyrical and song-like with outbursts of activity and intensity. I was often thinking of what my own jazz standard (with variations) might sound like.

Bell sounds are not used so explicitly, but I was hearing them in my head during the entire time that I was writing the work, and their presence, (especially in the piano part) should colour how the performers approach its sound world. Are they funeral bells, bells of distant memory, bells made of dense clusters of overtones which fracture and fragment from the intensity of their physical attack?

Two Movements (with Bells) was commissioned by the BBC Proms for violinist James Ehnes, and was written in the late spring and early summer of 2007.

Ballad(e) out of the Blue(s) – Superstar Etude No. 3

The three Superstar Etudes I’ve written are homages to three of the most important 20th century pianists who worked in vernacular styles, seen through the guise of virtuosic, classical pianism.

The first is inspired by Jerry Lee Lewis and early rock and roll, the second by Thelonius Monk and bebop, and the third by George Gershwin and the blues. Ballad(e) out of the Blue(s)—Superstar Etude No. 3 is the longest of the three. It also echoes other jazz performers whose playing has meant a lot to me when I was growing up—Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, and in the background, Errol Garner. It also, inevitably hints at various classical influences on my piano writing, from Chopin to Messiaen to Ives. Like Two Movements (with Bells), this third Etude is dedicated to the memory of my father. It is filled with substantial challenges of seemingly improvisatory writing in both hands and a great deal of left hand virtuosity, along with ballade-like songfulness and formal waywardness.

This Etude was first sketched in 2004 and completed in 2007. It was commissioned by the St. Paul (Minnesota) Chopin Society for the young virtuoso pianist Mihaela Ursuleasa (1978–2012), who premièred it in 2008.

Aaron Jay Kernis

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