Something Old, Something New
4 Jun 2011
Inside the Classics

I mentioned earlier this week that much of my time lately has been consumed by Aaron Kernis’s Concerto for Echoes, which is opening this week’s concerts. It’s always difficult to judge unfamiliar works while you’re in the middle of learning and performing them, but with two of four performances now under our belt, and two enthusiastic ovations from audiences that had surely showed up primarily to hear Beethoven and Sibelius, I feel fairly confident in saying that this is one of Aaron’s finest compositions to date.

At its best, Aaron’s music is immediately accessible but also cleverly brainy. It doesn’t assault you with new and difficult concepts, but contains just enough of the unfamiliar to prevent your brain from slipping into a comfort food coma. This orchestra has a long history with Aaron (he’s been our “new music advisor” for as long as I’ve been in Minneapolis, and he co-created and nurtured our much-lauded Composer Institute,) and I’ve come to think of him as one of the composers I can use as a gateway drug for resistant audiences.

Give me a concertgoer who adores Brahms and Ravel but claims to despise “new music,” and I’ll respond with a recommendation for a recording of Kernis’s “Musica Celestis,” or “Four Seasons of Futurist Cuisine.” These are serious (okay, the Futurist Cuisine one might not be entirely serious) works of music, but because Aaron doesn’t often confuse “serious” with “overly complicated,” the music makes an immediate and understandable impression on first hearing. And that’s no small thing – as one of our regular commenters noted last week, even as great a composer as Toru Takemitsu sometimes leaves you wishing that you could hear a second performance right after the first, because you just weren’t able to catch everything the first time around.

This week’s Kernis feature had eight of us violists scrambling weeks in advance, partly because the first movement is pretty insanely difficult to play, but mainly because a) the eight of us would be split into as many as eight different lines at times, and b) there are no violins in the piece.

That bears restating: there are no violins in the piece. This presents an area of concern for violists, because, while we like to tease violinists for their prima donna reputations and regard ourselves as somehow above their constant grasping for the spotlight, the reality is that we can get awfully comfortable hiding ourselves beneath their reliable blanket of treble. Take away the violins, and we violas are suddenly cast as the lead string instrument in the orchestra, a role with which we are decidedly unfamiliar and even potentially uncomfortable.

The reason that there are no violins in Aaron’s Concerto for Echoes is because the piece was commissioned as part of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s “New Brandenburgs” project, in which six composers were asked to create “companion” works for J.S. Bach’s beloved Brandenburg Concertos. Aaron drew the sixth Brandenburg, which famously omitted violins and featured two violas leaping and diving around each other in virtuoso fashion…

The centerpiece of the Concerto for Echoes is undeniably the expansive and rapturous second movement, labeled “Slowly.” But it’s the first movement – a toccata that starts with the same intervals Bach used at the beginning of his first movement, then spins outward into a wildly complex and intricate barrage of viola/cello/bass sound – that has kept me chained to my practice stand these past weeks. Aaron isn’t one of those composers who writes without a thought for what is and is not possible on a given instrument, but he does like to push us to our physical limits on occasion. And with a metronome marking of 126-132 per quarter note, this toccata was challenging enough that some of us began stockpiling arguments in advance of the first rehearsal to try and convince Osmo to ratchet down the tempo. (Orpheus played it around 112.)

As it turned out, we actually managed to get the thing pretty darn close to 126 by performance time, and last night, we all agreed that we’d actually managed to achieve a certain level of comfort with the beast. Which is always fun – tension is a valuable component of live performance, but I think music usually sounds best when the performers have an audible sense that they’re not intimidated by the challenge in front of them. And last night, while we may not have been perfect, we were definitely not intimidated…

(If you can’t see the audio player for some reason, click here to listen to our performance…)

Fun piece, no? Maybe we don’t need all those violins for cover, after all…

<April 2020>

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