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100 Greatest Dance Hits

September 25, 2016: Jason Vieaux, guitar; Escher String Quartet

Aaron Jay Kernis came to national attention as a twenty-three-year-old composer in 1983 when the New York Philharmonic premiered his Dream of the Morning Sky. He went on to receive the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for his String Quartet No. 2, “Musica instrumentalis,” and the 2002 Grawemeyer Award for Colored Field for cello and orchestra (originally an English horn concerto). In both cases he was the youngest composer to win these prestigious awards. His highly imaginative, sophisticated yet accessible works have been commissioned and performed by a pantheon of music organizations, ensembles, and soloists.

Growing up in Philadelphia, Kernis first studied violin, then taught himself piano at age twelve, and turned to composition the following year. He studied with John Adams at the San Francisco Conservatory, Charles Wuorinen at the Manhattan School of Music, and Jacob Druckman and Morton Subotnick at Yale University. He describes his wide-ranging influences as embracing everything from “Gertrude Stein to hard-edged rap to the diaphanous musical canvas of Claude Debussy.” He has taught at the Yale School of Music since 2003, has directed the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute, and held composer residencies with Astral Artists, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Albany Symphony, Minnesota Public Radio, and the American Composers Forum.

In the early 1990s many of Kernis’s compositions were concerned with dark images: his Second Symphony (1992) dealt with the Gulf War, Still Movement with Hymn (1993) with World War II and the Holocaust, and Colored Field (originally 1994) reflected his visits to the Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps. But his varied and colorful writing has also encompassed the humorous—The Four Seasons of Futurist Cuisine, and the erotic—Goblin Market, based on Christina Rossetti’s moody poem. More recently, for Renée Fleming he composed the alternately ferocious and lyrical Valentines (2000) on the feminist texts of Carol Ann Duffy, Newly Drawn Sky (2006) in honor of James Conlon’s first season as director of the Ravinia Festival, and his Viola Concerto (2014) for Paul Neubauer and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Most recently Marina Piccinini and the Detroit Symphony premiered his Flute Concerto in January 2016.

Kernis composed 100 Greatest Dance Hits in 1993, intending it as a celebration of popular styles of the ’90s, but he admits that sounds of the ’70s occurred to him more as he composed. The piece was premiered on September 3, 1993, for the tenth anniversary of the Music from Angel Fire Festival (New Mexico) by guitarist David Tanenbaum, violinists Ida and Ani Kavafian, violist Scott St. John and cellist Christopher Costanza.

Said Kernis, “I borrowed the title from those old K-Tel advertisements on late-night TV for 100 Greatest Motown Hits or 100 Greatest Soul Hits.” The piece unfolds in four movements, drawing on popular styles ranging from salsa and rap to disco and easy listening. The short, rhythmic introduction has the string players producing all manner of unconventional sounds. The ensuing “minuet/scherzo” movement features captivating dance gestures, drawing its title, Salsa Pasada (“Rancid Salsa”) from a pun on old-fashioned salsa dancing and the condiment when it is past its prime. Kernis drew on this movement for the finale of his 1997 Guitar Concerto.

Kernis entitled the contemplative slow movement (also refashioned for his Guitar Concerto) “MOR Easy Listening Slow Dance”—MOR referring to the “middle-of-the-road” kind of music his parents would like—“what they hope to find on the radio dial.” The driven finale’s impetus came from the television show Soul Train, with its over three decades of R&B, soul, hip-hop, and disco. Kernis simply substituted modes of transportation in his title—a boat for a train: Dance Party on the Disco Motorboat. The striking conclusion was inspired, said Kernis, by “kids on the subways doing intricate rap rhythms vocally, playing on their bodies even, so that the different syllables they were using and the different sounds they were making sounded like specific percussion instruments.”

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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