Aaron Jay Kernis returns to Minnesota to debut viola concerto with SPCO

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 18, 2014 - 3:00 PM

Composer Aaron Jay Kernis, who quit the Minnesota Orchestra in protest last fall, brings a world premiere to St. Paul next weekend.

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Aaron Jay Kernis

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Composer Aaron Jay Kernis brings some mixed emotions on this visit to the Twin Cities. He’s eager and happy to hear the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra play the world premiere of his viola concerto with Paul Neubauer next weekend.

“It’s a big piece — 27 minutes in three movements — and it’s been a lot of fun so closely working with Paul,” said Kernis, who has been accompanying Neubauer on piano, playing the piece in house concerts the past month. “He’s been playing it wonderfully.”

Yet, were this a year ago, Kernis would have been identified as new music adviser and director of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer Institute, overseeing the annual program that offered young writers a chance to hear their piece performed by the orchestra.

Last October, after 15 years with the orchestra, Kernis resigned the same day that Osmo Vänskä quit because of the failure of the orchestra’s board and musicians to reach a contract agreement. In a scorching letter, Kernis said he had “never seen two sides that show such unwillingness to sit down together and attempt to tackle the major challenges that confront the orchestra.”

Kernis said over the phone last week that his departure was painful, but that it was something he had been thinking about a long time. Once Vänskä left, he said, “I didn’t feel there was any point in being silent any longer.”

Interestingly, the turmoil over the lockout of musicians in Minnesota weighed on him and influenced the moods of the viola concerto.

“Certain parts are quite dark, pensive, and that very well suits the viola,” Kernis said. “The piece is not a story exactly, but there are many searching and melancholy moments — a mixture of concern, unease, apprehension and hope.”

The concerto, conducted by Roberto Abbado, will appear on a program with Haydn’s 101st Symphony and Stravinsky’s “Apollon Musagète.”

Kernis, who began working on the concerto last summer, drew more overt inspiration from Neubauer’s playing and transcriptions of Robert Schumann’s work for viola and piano. The second movement, he said, has a late-19th-century romantic quality, and the third is based on Yiddish folk tunes.

“There is an underlying theme about how relationships — to other people, to organizations — fray at times,” he said.

Looking to the future

Kernis’ associations with the Twin Cities go back more than 20 years, and they started with the SPCO, where he was composer in residence for three years in the 1990s.

He received his first significant commission from the orchestra in 1988, when John Adams was creative chair. “Symphony in Waves” had its “partial premiere” in 1989, with Adams explaining that he could not get the entire piece ready for performance. It had a second premiere, in full, four years later.

Kernis won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for music and the 2002 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, which carries a $200,000 honorarium. The Grawemeyer cited his “Colored Field,” which in a version for cello and orchestra was commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra and had its premiere in Minneapolis with cellist Truls Mørk in 2000. Kernis has taught at Yale since 2003, and lives in New York City.

Kernis has followed the fractious happenings at the Minnesota Orchestra since he resigned. He hopes for healing, but understands that the music director situation (whether to bring Vänskä back and in what capacity) is the key to moving forward. He has an opinion on what should happen, but declined to share it during the phone conversation. He followed up with an e-mail, saying that yeah, he did have something to say.

“Osmo and the musicians lifted the orchestra up to become one of the very best in the world, which can’t be underestimated, and I hope will continue,” Kernis wrote. “I’m greatly relieved that they are making music again, and working to plan a future.”

If he were asked to work with the orchestra again, he said, he would certainly give it some thought if the conditions seemed right.

“I can’t understate how important my time with the orchestra was to the development of these wonderful young composers,” he said.

  • Viola concerto

    Who: By Aaron Jay Kernis. Conducted by Roberto Addado. Performed by Paul Neubauer and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

    When: 7:30 p.m. Thu., 10:30 a.m. Fri., 8 p.m. Sat.

    Where: Ordway Center, 5th and Washington Sts., St. Paul.

    Tickets: $10-$40. 651-291-1144, thespco.org

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