Aaron Jay Kernis (pictured left) is the Albany Symphony’s “mentor composer” this season, and last weekend’s concerts featured a fascinating variety of Kernis-related musical shadings, performed with the kind of brio and skill that reminds us that even a seemingly abstruse musical language can be appealingly moving.
The weakest programmatic association was with Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4, the “Italian,” identified as one of Kernis’s favorite works. But so it is with us all. It was the concert closer, luring people back to their seats after intermission. The performance was crisp, the tempos appealing.
Transparency is important. Mendelssohn kicks up a lot of inner-voice excitement, and was well served by conductor David Alan Miller and his players. Like Mozart, he knew how to come out of a first-movement development section with a surge of excitement, and the dynamics suited the progression well. Gorgeous melodies poured out of the second and third movements, while the fourth was all about speed and endurance. Mendelssohn must have had the finale of Beethoven’s seventh in mind when he wrote the latter.
As Kernis explained when introducing his Concerto with Echoes, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra commissioned six composers five years ago to write companion pieces to the Bach Brandenburg Concertos. Kernis chose the sixth, and celebrated the canonic nature of much of its writing by exploring the concept of echoes.
Fittingly, the concert opened with the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, which brought out seven players, leaving even Miller backstage with the others. It’s essentially a concerto for two violas accompanied by even lower-voiced strings—in this case, two cellos and a bass, with a third cello and a harpsichord providing continuo. It gets tricky, especially in the brisk first movement in which the violas run sinuous rings around each other, so it was a delight to hear it performed so well and without the additional orchestral forces so often called into play.
The first movement of Kernis’s concerto echoed the instrumentation, with four apiece of violas and cellos and two basses, kicking off with the uncertain feeling that comes from tremolos and trills before bursting into a whirlwind toccata. It’s more motif- than melody-driven, but with an emotional logic that led to a satisfying climax and release.
The second and third movements add brass and winds and, especially, percussion, with some beautiful English horn work. You could feel the audience relax during these more melodic movements, leading me to wonder where the place of enjoyment lives for listeners. I believe that it’s a matter of surrender. The music may sound difficult, but it’s pushing new neural paths that give the challenge of leaving behind the familiar without causing undue pain.
Miller brilliantly led the ensemble through this challenging and, ultimately, very satisfying work. We got a Kernis bonus in his arrangements of five Études by Debussy, capturing the feel of Debussy’s own orchestral style in these whimsical, tuneful pieces that should become standard repertory in this guise.
Kathryn Salfelder was a student of Kernis, so it was appropriate to add the premiere of her Lux Perpetua for Saxophone and Orchestra to the program—especially as it displayed the formidable talent of Timothy McAllister on soprano sax.
The six-movement work, played without pause, is a meditation on light and dark which took a skilled survey of a variety of textural effects that orchestra and soloist can provide, in particular showcasing (as all contemporary sax pieces must) screechy multiphonics.
While the sonics were assured, I missed a more obvious sense of structure, in which the emotional journey the piece invites you on works effectively. But I like Salfelder’s choice of subject and instruments, and look forward to hearing more of her work.