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Aaron Jay Kernis
(b. 1960)
The two works on this recording share much in common:
from the virtuosic, percussion-rich approach to orchestral
writing to the fundamental use of variation as a unifying
and essential creative compositional approach. Though
written more than 15 years apart, the two works are like
related family members – one brash and exuberant, the
other more serious and pensive in intent, though no less
bold in manner.
Color Wheel • Symphony No. 4 ‘Chromelodeon’
Color Wheel
was composed especially for The
Philadelphia Orchestra’s opening concerts in Verizon Hall
at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in 2001, and
in celebration of the orchestra’s centennial. It was
premiered at the grand opening of that hall with former
music director Wolfgang Sawallisch.
The honor of being asked to compose the first music
played by The Philadelphia Orchestra in my hometown in
the newest of concert halls led me to conceive of a
“miniature” concerto for orchestra which treats it as a
large and dynamic body of sound and color. The work
features the virtuosity of the orchestra’s larger sections
(winds, strings, brass, percussion) and to a great extent
focuses on distinct groups of instruments separately and
in combination rather than on individual soloists.
There were many experiences that helped to inspire
the process of writing this piece. Long before starting it I
met with architect Rafael Viñoly and acoustician Russell
Johnson to learn about the development of the new hall.
Shortly before that I’d completed an ambient sound score
for the new Rose Center for Earth and Space at the
American Museum of Natural History in New York, and
was fascinated by the challenge of writing for a specific
acoustical environment. Initially I’d intended that
would explore specific spatial characteristics of this
new hall. As I spent a good deal of time re-familiarizing
myself with that splendid orchestra, I vividly remembered
many life-changing afternoons and evenings in my early
Color Wheel
teens hearing the orchestra at the Academy of Music. I
eventually decided to concentrate on exploring the unique
qualities of the orchestra itself, employing a wide array of
contrasts in dynamics and sounds to embolden the ear to
discover this new space in what I hoped would be a vivid
new musical experience.
Two visual elements have influenced
Color Wheel.
Color wheels are tools used by artists and designers that
teach color relationships by organizing colors in a circle
so you can visualize how they relate to each other. Most
color wheels show primary colors and myriads of related
hues. I feel that this piece concentrates on the bolder
contrasts of basic primary colors. (I sometimes see colors
when I compose, and the qualities of certain chords do
elicit specific sensations in me – for example, I see the A
major that ends this work as bright yellow.) I’ve also been
fascinated with Sufi whirling dervishes and their ecstatic
spinning. This work may have some ecstatic moments,
but it is full of tension, continuous energy and drive.
Color Wheel
explores a wide gamut of
colors, from huge overtone-derived chords, strongly
contrasting levels of consonance and dissonance, and
occasional touches of jazz harmony and syncopation.
The work opens with a brief, bold, chorale-like
introduction which introduces many of the piece’s basic
musical elements that will be varied later on. These
opening harmonies and vital four- and eight-note motifs in
the horns and trumpets reappear later in many guises. The
boldness of the opening chords is contrasted with the soft,
liquid harmonies and rising lines in the strings.
Color Wheel
then changes character suddenly, beginning again with a
contrasting lighter tone as a
in the winds. From
then on the work unfolds as a series of variations on the
extremely malleable opening ideas. In fact, the work is a
series of inventions on those initial harmonies and motifs.
After reaching a climactic point in its spinning, a
variation of the slower music returns, passing rising
melodic lines between sections of the strings. The faster
music returns gradually in a series of more compressed
variations and re-examinations of elements from before.
The work builds to a whirling high point and closes with a
return of the opening chorale idea in its grandest
harmonic context and most fully realized melodic shape.
Color Wheel
is dedicated with love to my wife,
Evelyne Luest.
Writing symphonies can seem anachronistic in 2018, but
to me (as Mahler says) they contain the entire world. It is
the totality of the musical worlds of Mahler, Sibelius, and
Haydn (plus Messiaen) that speak most urgently to me. In
each of my four symphonies I’ve pushed past boundaries
of what I’ve explored in my work up to that point.
“Chromelodeon” seems like a nonsensical word. The
only instances of its use that I’ve found come as the name
of a microtonal instrument (36 tones per octave) invented
by the great American eccentric composer/hobo Harry
Partch, and of a cult progressive rock band in the late 60s.
But for me it has a particular meaning: “Chroma-,” relating
to the chromatic scale of notes, or intensity of/or produced
with color; “Melodi-,” melody, a succession of tones that
produce a distinct phrase or idea; and “-eon,” one who
performs. In other words, chromatic, colorful, melodic
music performed by an orchestra. This new symphony is
created out of musical elements, not images or stories,
though I would not be surprised if the influence of living in
the chaos of the world today – at a “molecular” emotive
level – didn’t play a part in its creation.
The first movement,
Out of Silence,
is the most
continuously chromatic, characterized by shifting 6–9
note chords first heard in bells, and later, strings, followed
by a pensive tune first heard in the viola. It unfolds from
an uneasy yet frequently contemplative sound world that
grows in drama and intensity, and through many
variations in texture. Before beginning the movement I
read Thich Nhat Hanh’s
and thought again (after
many years) about John Cage’s essential book of essays
also of that name. I’ve only begun on a journey suggested
by those readings, and very possibly the experience of
writing this symphony is part of that.
Symphony No. 4 ‘Chromelodeon’
Chromaticism and consonance coexist side by side
(or even simultaneously) more clearly in the other
movements. After a dense, hectoring chorale opening, the
Thorn Rose | Weep Freedom (after Handel)
exposes a melody vaguely influenced by Handel with an
antique-sounding string quartet which is soon opposed by
shifting, chromatic chord clouds, and leads onward to ten
or so mostly short variations. The longest and most
languid variation is for strings alone, and leads to a varied
return of the opening chorale and final variation of the
tune which is destroyed by wave-like outbursts. Finally, to
close the movement, part of the original Handel tune
appears, distorted and broken. (The title of this movement
comes from the central words in the text of two versions of
the famous and deeply touching aria
Laschia ch’io pianga
from the operas
Leave the thorn, take the rose;
you go searching for your pain.
The final, and shortest movement,
Fanfare Chromelodia,
makes the coexistence of opposing forces even clearer,
placing ringing brass exhortations, repetitive little “musical
machines,” and wide-ranging disjunct melodies appear
side by side, with a final slow chorale placed below fast
runs and nearly ecstatic melodic figures that end boldly
and unexpectedly in a ringing open fifth.
Symphony No. 4 ‘Chromelodeon’
(2018) was co-
commissioned by the New England Conservatory of Music,
on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of its founding, for
its orchestra, Hugh Wolff, director; the Nashville
Symphony, Giancarlo Guerrero, music director; and the
Bellingham Festival of Music, Michael Palmer, artistic
director, with the support of Anacrusis Productions Ltd.
Aaron Jay Kernis
Let me weep over my cruel fate,
And that I long for freedom!
Nashville Symphony
Photo: Kurt Heinecke
One of Tennessee’s largest and longest-running nonprofit performing arts organizations, the Nashville Symphony has
been an integral part of the Music City sound since 1946. Led by music director Giancarlo Guerrero and president and
CEO Alan D. Valentine, the 83-member ensemble performs more than 160 concerts annually, with a focus on
contemporary American orchestral music through collaborations with composers including Jennifer Higdon, Terry Riley,
Aaron Jay Kernis, Michael Daugherty, John Harbison, Jonathan Leshnoff, and the late Christopher Rouse. The
orchestra is equally renowned for its commissioning and recording projects with Nashville-based artists including
bassist Edgar Meyer, banjoist Béa Fleck, singer-songwriter Ben Folds, electric bassist Victor Wooten, and composer
Kip Winger. The Nashville Symphony is one of the most active recording orchestras in the US, with more than 30
releases. Together, these recordings have earned a total of 25 GRAMMY Award nominations and 13 GRAMMY
Awards, including two for Best Orchestral Performance. Schermerhorn Symphony Center is home to the Nashville
Symphony and widely regarded as one of the finest concert halls in the US.
Giancarlo Guerrero
Photo: Łukasz Rajchert
Six-time GRAMMY Award-winning conductor
Giancarlo Guerrero is music director of the
Nashville Symphony and the NFM Wrocław
Philharmonic in Poland, as well as principal
guest conductor of the Gulbenkian Orchestra
in Lisbon, Portugal.  He has championed
contemporary American music through
numerous commissions, recordings and
performances with the Nashville Symphony,
presenting eleven world premieres of works
by Jonathan Leshnoff, Michael Daugherty,
Terry Riley, and others. As part of this
commitment, he helped guide the creation of
Nashville Symphony’s Composer Lab &
Workshop initiative. In North America,
Guerrero has appeared with the orchestras of
Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland,
Detroit, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles,
Philadelphia, Toronto, and the National
Symphony Orchestra. He has developed a
strong international profile working with the
Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Brussels
Philharmonic, Deutsche Radio Philharmonie,
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France,
Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, and the
London Philharmonic Orchestra. An advocate
for music education, he works with the Curtis
Institute of Music, Colburn School, the
National Youth Orchestra (NYO2) in New
York, and the Nashville Symphony’s
Accelerando program, which provides
intensive music education to promising young
students from diverse ethnic backgrounds.
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