Aaron Jay Kernis: A Colorist of Dynamic Proportions

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You'd be forgiven for thinking that, despite his unassuming physical presence, Aaron Jay Kernis is some kind of extrovert. Listen to these titles: 100 Greatest Dance Hits, New Era Dance, Too Hot Toccata, Superstar Etudes. The self-advertisement is all a bit ironic, of course, but there's no denying Kernis's eagerness to please. His music is never facile—there are always layers of musical activity and invention beneath the surface—but that surface is polished to a brilliant shine. His is an audience-centered aesthetic.

The New York Philharmonic premiered Kernis's Dream of the Morning Sky when he was all of 23 years old, and since then he has only risen in prominence among American composers. His cello transcription of his Colored Field for English horn and orchestra (1994), in which moments of Romantic lyricism and hard-driving jazz syncopation dissolve into cascades of pure sonority, won the 2002 Grawemeyer Award, arguably the most prestigious prize in classical composition. When his Second String Quartet ("musica instrumentals") of 1997 won the Pulitzer Prize, he was the youngest composer ever to have received the distinction.  

Calculated to stimulate players as well audiences, Kernis's music has been performed by artists as eminent and diverse as Joshua Bell, Christopher O'Riley, the Lark Quartet and Renee Fleming. 

Kernis is eager to draw his effects from as vast a palette as possible. Disney commissioned him to write Garden of Light (1999), a 40-minute oratorio of Mahlerian dimensions, to celebrate the turn of the millennium. While the title of his Third Symphony ("Symphony of Meditations") suggests—correctly—that the sacred and intimate subject matter of its Englished Hebrew text will be reflected in a meticulously wrought, deeply personal work, the piece is also enormously vast, enveloping spectacle.

But even in his chamber works, he relies upon his skills as a colorist to generate the maximum possible range of moods and effects. His Dance Hits (1993), a seeming bagatelle for string quartet and guitar, takes the audience on a tasting tour down a long menu of Latin flavors. And from his First Quartet's exquisite reverie, "musica celestis," to the extravagant neoclassical complexity of the Second Quartet's finale, "Triple Double Gigue Fugue" his music for string quartet alone balances vivacious dance rhythms against moments of exquisite lyricism.