SSO world premiere falls painfully flat
 

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posted Friday, July 3, 2009 - Volume 37 Issue 27

SSO world premiere falls painfully flat
by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Seattle Symphony Concert
June 25
Benaroya Hall


There are a few good things I could say about Aaron Jay Kernis' 'Symphony No. 3, "Symphony of Meditations,"' which received its world premiere last week at the Seattle Symphony. Most impressive, Kernis showed an excellent skill in writing for the voice, acquired no doubt from his affectionately remembered experiences of listening to cantors sing at temple when he was a child. And, when he resisted the temptation to over-orchestrate, the music became interesting. Unfortunately, such moments were rare.

I feared we were in trouble when, during a pre-concert discussion, both the composer and the translator of the set religious poems of adoration and supplication revealed that they were "not religious." The poems by the 11th century Spanish poet, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, are intensely religious. What ever happened to the wisdom of "write what you know"?

What we got was a painfully tedious work that went on and on for one hour and 10 minutes. Kernis' writing suffered from gross misuse of the orchestra. The result was mostly loud mush. We could see whole sections playing while being drowned out by the general noise. Ordinarily you can hear David Gordon's super-focused, silvery trumpet cut through anything, but not this time. Often the words of the entire Symphony Chorale were swamped by the massive orchestra. Only rarely did quiet moments reveal that Kernis could write well for instruments as well as for the voice. My partner Dale tried to understand the words by following the text in the printed program but could not make out enough to stay with it.

The Kernis symphony is a massive work, requiring large chorus, three solo singers, and an enlarged orchestra with an elaborate percussion section. It has to be very expensive to perform. Seattle Symphony has presented many worthy recently composed works, but unfortunately Aaron Jay Kernis' latest symphony was not one of them. (Multiple mics and a sound technician at the noisy soundboard in back of the auditorium may mean it is being recorded for release on CD.)

Relief from the tedium came from the superb singing of baritone Robert Gardner and soprano Hyunah Yu. (Tenor Paul Karaitis was used so briefly, and only in a duet with the baritone, that he made little impression.) Gardner was not only expressive but also possessed a beautiful voice, superb technique, and considerable power. Hyunah Yu had a lovely tone and beautifully rounded high pianissimos. In this needlessly over-complex work, conductor Schwarz had all he could do to keep things moving and give admirably clear cues. (The work was dedicated to Schwarz, who commissioned it for the Seattle Symphony.)

Fortunately the second half of the evening was in the hands of a far less self-indulgent composer. Gustav Holst's 'The Planets' is known to nearly everyone, and justly so. The seven-part work is a delight to hear live, and the SSO did it well, even if the reading lacked the last degree of imagination.

In fact, the last moments violated an explicit imaginative inspiration of the composer, who indicated in the score that the women's ethereal voices, suggesting the distant and mystical planet Neptune, should fade away into the evocative distance. Schwarz did well to add spaciousness by placing the women in the back of the upper balcony (instead of the usual off-stage location). But instead of having them slowly exit the balcony doors, they remained in place and ended their singing with an abrupt cut-off. (They are singing very sustained high notes and could not reasonably be expected to diminuendo into a triple pianissimo.) Thus, a magical moment was lost.

I confess that I like the synthesizer version of 'The Planets' by Tomita (RCA CD) just as well as a live performance with orchestra. An inspired work can indeed inspire welcome alternative versions, such as Ravel's magical orchestration of 'Pictures at an Exhibition,' originally composed for solo piano. Tomita showed not only great respect for the original but also an inspired imagination in both his choice of sounds and in the 'space age' transitions he composed for the 'journey' from planet to planet. Highly recommended.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.



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