Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Worst Symphony in the World, and Other, More Fruitful, Recent Concerts

Friday night came the East Coast premiere -- drawing together the university Philharmonia, two vocal soloists, and three separate choirs -- of Aaron Jay Kernis's "Symphony of Meditations," which is very possibly the worst piece of new orchestral music I've ever heard in concert. Kernis is a very well established and often-performed composer, and he's on the School of Music faculty here. So he had the opportunity to write this eighty-minute sprawl, for the Seattle Symphony, and to have it performed a second time, with him conducting.

The Meditations are in translation from Solomon Ibn Gabirol, 11th-century Spanish poet. Kernis sets them with admirable fidelity, or at least an unwillingness to abridge them so that the symphony would be less than eighty minutes long. Kernis describes the work as a spiritual testament, necessary to him despite a generally secular life, and I respect that. But the entire span of the thing completely sags under these meandering, operatic, kind-of-tonal vocal recitatives. The orchestra provides a generally plusher upholstery but nothing substantially more ear-catching. The best parts of the symphony suggest Britten's "War Requiem" without the tunes; another minute-long span in the second movement gloriously knocks off Adams's "Harmonium" closely enough that you can escape in your mind to a better piece. There's no excuse for any of this.

The third movement, which is itself 40 minutes long, thanklessly hands a dire Supplication to the baritone. ("I'm ashamed, my God, ashamed to be standing before you," it starts, and continues on like so.) There's no large-scale dramatic arc, so the movement quickly bogs down. The program indicates an "aria" section in the middle someplace that sounds exactly like the rest of the recitative. There's a little bit of slightly fresher air at the very end.

Woolsey Hall doesn't do any favors acoustically (and for some reason they'd closed the second balcony, which is where the best acoustics are), and I'm sure it offers a little more life with better sound. Still: awful, awful, awful. I went with a musicology grad student (studying Britten! she would know from), and afterwards we had one of those tentative exchanges where you're making sure the other person didn't actually like it, and then we both started ranting about it being directionless and excruciating. Good times.

For further reading, here is local classical writer and blogger Dan Johnson giving a rave review, and here is another good review from the Seattle premiere earlier this year.

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On the plus side, a couple of weeks ago my musicologically informed college friend Dan (in Ann Arbor) tipped me off to a young British vocal ensemble on an American tour: they are Stile Antico, and they came to New Haven shortly after Dan heard them. And the concert they gave, up at the Divinity School's chapel -- a back-and-forth of Thomas Tallis psalter stanzas and William Byrd motets -- was absolutely lucid and magnificent. Pure and seemingly effortless voices refresh you like sunlight does.

The program was brilliant: the Tallis works, Protestant and English, are short, direct, and homophonic; the Byrd pieces, Catholic and Latin, are wide-ranging and intricately woven. Stile Antico instilled it all with both precision and humane liveliness. Description doesn't really do it justice; music should always be so satisfying.

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There's more -- the Philharmonia put on a very good Mahler 4 a few weeks back, for example -- but it's 12:30 and I think I'll need another night to describe anything else.


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