On August 11, 2017, the Grant Park Music Festival performed a world premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis’ Legacy, Concerto for Horn, Strings, Harp and Percussion. The concert was repeated on August 12. Lawrence A. Johnson of Chicago Classical Review described the music as “gracious and well crafted” and horn soloist Jonathan Boen as “a supreme exponent, performing with rounded, glowing tone, seamless technical facility and impeccable control.” The combined audience over the two nights totaled 19,500 Chicagoans and visitors enjoying the performance, free of charge, in the outdoor venue of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago’s Millennium Park.
Aaron Jay Kernis (born in 1960)
LEGACY, CONCERTO FOR HORN, STRINGS, HARP AND PERCUSSION (2017)
Scored for: strings, harp and percussion
Performance time: 20 minutes
World Premiere, commissioned by the Grant Park Music Festival and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic
“I want to write music that is visceral, that is moving, and that is impeccably put together. I don’t want classical music to be a passive experience. I want it to have as much impact as the best rock concerts.” Aaron Jay Kernis, who distilled the essence of his art in these words, is very much a composer for the turn of the millennium — eclectic, brazen, exuberant, aggressive, plugged-in. “I want everything to be included in music,” he says, “soaring melody, consonance, tension, dissonance, drive, relaxation, color, strong harmony and form — and for every possible emotion to be elicited actively by the passionate use of these elements.” Passion, laced with chutzpah, marked his earliest recognition by the music world: when Jacob Druckman, his teacher at Yale and then Composer-in-Residence with the New York Philharmonic, scheduled an open reading of Kernis’ Dream of the Morning Sky at the Philharmonic’s Horizons Festival of new music in June 1983, Kernis vigorously defended his handling of the orchestra after the conductor, Zubin Mehta, criticized it from the podium. Audience and critics were won over, and Kernis was news.
Aaron Jay Kernis was born in Philadelphia on January 15, 1960, and started teaching himself piano and violin at age twelve; he began composing soon thereafter. He took his professional training at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (with John Adams), Manhattan School of Music (Elias Tanenbaum and Charles Wuorinen), Yale (Morton Subotnik, Bernard Rands and, principally, Jacob Druckman) and the American Academy in Rome; he was appointed to the faculty of the Yale University School of Music in 2003. Since his coming-out with Dream of the Morning Sky at that New York Philharmonic concert in 1983, Kernis has created an impressive catalog: significant scores for orchestra (three symphonies, New Era Dance, Invisible Mosaic III, Musica Celestis, a double concerto for guitar and violin, solo concertos for English horn, guitar violin and cello); numerous compositions for varied chamber ensembles; pieces for piano, organ and accordion; and many works for solo voices and for chorus. He has held extended residencies with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra, Nashville Symphony and Mannes College of Music.
Kernis won the Pulitzer Prize for his String Quartet No. 2 (“Musica Instrumentalis”) in 1998, and the University of Louisville’s prestigious Grawemeyer Award four years later for the cello concerto Colored Field. In addition to the 2012 Nemmers Prize in Music Composition from Northwestern University, for which he fulfilled month-long residencies during 2012-2013 and 2013-2014, his many other distinctions include the Stoeger Prize from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Guggenheim Fellowship, Rome Prize, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Bearns Prize, New York Foundation for the Arts Award, Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and awards from BMI and ASCAP, as well as many commissions from some of the country’s leading ensembles and institutions; in March 2011 he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Kernis fulfilled commissions for works for two significant occasions in the year 2000: one for the centennial celebrations of the Philadelphia Orchestra; the other, from Michael Eisner and the Disney Corporation, observing the arrival of the new millennium. In February 2000, his “permanently installed ambient music” for the Rose Center for Earth and Space at New York’s Museum of Natural History, titled Cosmic Cycle, was first heard. In 1995, Kernis signed an exclusive recording contract with Decca/London, which has released several highly acclaimed albums of his music.
STATEMENT FROM THE ARTIST:
In the months following President Barack Obama’s farewell address in Chicago, I began to turn my thoughts to composing this new horn concerto for tonight’s premiere at the Grant Park Music Festival.
The President’s inspiring summation of the previous eight years of our history rests incongruously next to the daily turmoil that has taken hold since then. A great deal has been written about the idea of the former President’s ‘legacy’: a commitment to protect our air, water, health, children … which, since then is being torn down, many pieces at a time, every single day.
As a creative artist, I think frequently about what I will be able to pass on to my family, and to our world, as I spend my life attempting to create works of beauty, healing, confrontation and ideas. Building, not destroying. I hope my children will appreciate and take part in giving their best to the world that we live in together.
This concerto — titled Legacy — is both an abstract work made up of themes presented in harmonious and conflicting relationships, as well as a record of personal emotions and thoughts transformed into those ideas and into sound.
Legacy is commissioned jointly by the Grant Park Music Festival and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic for their respective principal hornists, Jonathan Boen and Timothy Jackson. It is dedicated to President Barack Obama to honor his humanity, humility, intelligence and inspiration as the nation’s former leader. —Aaron Jay Kernis