Many sounds influence Kernis' music

October 23, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Aaron Jay Kernis devours everything he hears. As it does for many young composers, this means reflecting the influences of Gustav Mahler and John Adams, Steve Reich and Richard Wagner, Olivier Messiaen and Richard Strauss and Jean Sibelius and Jerry Lee Lewis.

But Kernis, whose music will be performed tonight at Meyerhoff Hall by Baltimore Symphony music director David Zinman and members of the BSO, takes eclecticism further than most. He walks down a street in his multi-ethnic Washington Heights neighborhood in New York, hears salsa and rap blasting from car radios and finds a way to fit it into his music. That's why the last movement of his Symphony No. 1 ("Symphony of Waves"), which was performed last year in New York and has just been released on Argo records, is so inebriated with the raucous dance rhythms of Latin music that it may make you want to kick your shoes off and cut a rug.

"More than anything else I listen to classical music," says the soft-spoken, 32-year-old composer, whose gentle demeanor and bespectacled face make him resemble a chess nerd. "But I listen popular music when I'm looking to create rhythmic invention and activity inside myself."

On the basis of such works as the "Symphony of Waves," Kernis is succeeding brilliantly. To paraphrase T. S. Eliot, bad composers borrow,but good composers steal. Kernis makes references to Wagner, Jerry Lee Lewis and Salsa so completely his own that one is never aware of them simply as allusions. The music is so passionate, so brilliantly and excitingly put together that it seems completely personal. And because it is built out of the music we hear on our own car radios and those of others, it is altogether accessible.

It is perhaps no accident that this Philadelphia-born son of a mailman and a bank secretary was a musical late bloomer who took an unconventional route to becoming a musician. His non-musical parents took him to a Philadelphia Orchestra concert when he was a small child -- without any discernible effect. But that all changed when he chanced to hear some Dvorak and Villa-Lobos on the radio. He joined a choir in sixth grade, took violin lessons so he could join the school orchestra, taught himself to play the piano and became so adept at sight reading that by the time he finished high school he was good enough to be accepted as a student at the San Francisco Conservatory. There he studied with John Adams, before that second-generation minimalist had become world famous.

But while Adams was -- and continues to be -- an important influence on his music, Kernis returned East after one year to study with Charles Wuorinen at the Manhattan School of Music. This may seem like a bit of a contradiction. Wuorinen is, if one of the most brilliant, certainly one of the knottiest and most difficult of the post-serial composers.

"I rejected what he stood for, but Wuorinen forced me to think about music in a really rigorous way," Kernis says.

This rigor can be found in the way in which Kernis uses string solos in the second movement of his Symphony No. 1 to suggest points of light on ripples of waves. But a lyric impulse is found everywhere in his music. Tonight Zinman will conduct an arrangement for strings of the second movement of his string quartet. In its rapt mystery and the way it builds to a peak and and then subsides, this movement has been compared to Samuel Barber's famous "Adagio for Strings," but Kernis maintains that "I don't think they're anything like each other."

He says he was influenced by medieval music, especially that by Hildegard of Bingen, whose soaring music suggests the singing of angels in praise of God.

"I don't particularly believe in angels," Kernis says, "but I found this to be a particularly potent image."

BSO concert

What: Music by Aaron Jay Kernis, Arvo Part and George Crumb and David Dzubay

Where: Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall

When: Tonight at 8:15

Tickets: $6 and $12

$ Call: (410) 783-8000

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