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  • Aaron Jay Kernis: Second Symphony / Musica Celestis
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Aaron Jay Kernis: Second Symphony / Musica Celestis

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Audio CD, September 15, 2005
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Editorial Reviews

While working on the Second Symphony, Kernis recalls the collective national fixation on images of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. For the composer, these "exerted a kind of fascination and sense of horror at what seemed to be a purely technological war, one that was heavily manipulated by the government for the media." One specific image that haunted Kernis came from the cover of The New York Post, which documented the accidental bombing of an apartment building in Iraq. "Something about the immediate annihilation without warning gave me the sonic image of pulverizing and obliteration" an image with which the Symphony reaches its climax. Kernis describes an overarching narrative structure to the three-movement work, centered on a metaphor of humanity facing the brutalizing machine: "The work is very linear, with the long line put forward in three different contexts in each movement. In the first, the line is set against an unyielding mechanical, rhythmic profile, giving the sense of a wave threatening to overtake the melody. The second movement winnows essentially to melody and accompaniment (with some areas of counterpoint), while in the third the stark line is mostly exposed alone against the wave of percussion. Equally important is the gradual stripping away of layers as the piece goes on." The String Quartet No. 1 takes its name from the subtitle of its slow second movement: "musica celestis." This is also the name Kernis applies to what has become perhaps his best-known work to date. In the tradition of Samuel Barber's similarly extracted Adagio for Strings, Musica Celestis is an arrangement of that Quartet movement for string orchestra (with double bass added), completed in 1991. Kernis ascribes his inspiration to the medieval concept of the music of the spheres, "which refers to the singing of the angels in heaven in praise of God without end." He cites his discovery of Hildegard of Bingen, yet Musica Celestis evinces a broader range of influences: from English pastoralism and the Barber Adagio to the radical simplicity of Beethoven's Heiliger Dankgesang from Op.132 all framed by a sonority reminiscent of Lohengrin's "silvery blue" A major harmonies.

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Product Details

  • Orchestra: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
  • Conductor: Hugh Wolff
  • Composer: Aaron Jay Kernis
  • Audio CD (September 15, 2005)
  • Number of Discs: 1
  • Label: Phoenix USA
  • ASIN: B000BNMDLU
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #370,031 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Karl W. Nehring on July 24, 2009
Format: Audio CD
Although I believe I had heard Kernis's name mentioned before, probably on the radio, I cannot recall ever hearing any of his music before I picked this disk up purely on a whim on one of those nights that found me wandering around the classical section of the music store, wanting to buy something, but not quite knowing what to buy. (Gee, that sounds pretty sick, doesn't it... ?) The cover was hard to resist, with a human figure leaping through a fireball (but remember these words of wisdom from Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey: "Our album covers lied to us, dude!"), so I took a chance and took this CD home to see what it contained.

This disk turned out to be one of the finest CDs I had purchased in quite a while, and judging at least from this recording, Aaron Jay Kernis (b. 1960 in Philadelphia) is a composer with a promising future. The three-movement Second Symphony is a dramatic work inspired by the Gulf War. Powerful stuff, powerfully performed and recorded, this symphony is a work you can sink your teeth into and play over and over again.

After the fury of the Second Symphony, the mood changes significantly with Musica Celestis, a deeply expressive piece for string orchestra that reaches toward Heaven with sincerity and conviction. This is absolutely lovely music, very touching, very pure and heartfelt.

Kernis's ability to express himself both in the violent fury of the Second Symphony and in the serene beauty of the Musica Celestis indicates that he is certainly not a one-trick composer. Were this CD to contain only these two works, it would be highly recommendable--but there's more.

Invisible Mosaic III stands in contrast to the first two selections on this CD by being more a work of pure musical expression than of emotional expression.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Robert G. Francis on August 28, 2009
Format: Audio CD Verified Purchase
Aaron Jay Kernis preserves the elements well thought out musical composition. That is to say in a long line of composers he tastefully utilizes aspects of creating tensions and then resolving them. However, there are moments when I found myself asking "what is this guy mad about"? Only later to feel myself at peace once again. A Torrent of musical colors pour out of the stereo all of which show a talent for Orchestration equal or even slightly more creative than that of Respigi, Barber or Stravinsky. This is not film music, thank god. It is art, created I hope for the sake of the art driven by a passion. I found it very refreshing and I have been re-visiting it weekly, as well as sharing with my colleagues. If I had more time to write music I would definitely look into studying his scores.

Robert Glenn Francis
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Format: Audio CD
Reissue of a CD originally published by Argo in 1997, Kernis: Second Symphony / Musica Celestis / Invisible Mosaic 3. There may be nothing truly new in Kernis' compositional processes, he's not an explorer of unchartered musical and sonic territories, he's happy to use the stock-and-trade of symphonic gestures of contemporary music from the second half of the 20th century (the anxiety-torn symphonic music of the Swedish Allan Pettersson often came to mind in the 2nd Symphony) and even its first half if you include Varèse's Amériques, and he doesn't shy either from the romantic-sentimental redolent of film music (in his slow movements he often seems as if he's trying to emulate Barber's Adagio), but he puts these processes and "tricks" to use in a highly effective way generating visceral impact, underpinned by a masterful science of writing for the orchestra. The Second Symphony's first movement is six minutes of explosive paroxysm, and the brooding, funeral Finale adds its shovels of devastating brutality, ending in what must be one of the mosst deafening crescendos in the history of music - it could be, although it isn't, or at least Kernis never declared that it was, music for remembering the holocaust. In between, you get a dreamy, wistful, plaintive evocation (of things past? of a world in rubble?) starting with clarinet(s) solo over lamenting counter-melody of strings, followed by sentimental and soon weeping violins - Kernis trying to imitate Honegger, Shostakovich or Barber.Read more ›
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