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Aaron Jay Kernis

Publisher: G. Schirmer

Concerto with Echoes (2009)
AMP and AJK Music
Sub Category
Chamber Orchestra
Year Composed
14 Minutes
Programme Note
Aaron Jay Kernis Concerto with Echoes (2009)
Composer note:

The essential element in the Sixth Brandenburg Concerto that inspired this work comes from its very first measure — the opening passage with two spiraling solo violas, like identical twins following each other breathlessly through a hall of mirrors — the echoing of the title. Also in mind were other works of Bach’s that I think of constantly, such as the Ricercar (also on tonight’s program), keyboard Toccatas, C Minor Organ Passacaglia, etc. But it also echoes other recent work of mine and reminiscences of other composers I love who also paid homage to Bach in their music.

Each of the Brandenburgs is exceptional in its use of instruments, and this concerto mirrors the Sixth by using only violas, celli and basses, while gradually adding reeds and horns into a loop back to the sound world of First Brandenburg Concerto (and extending it with trumpet and percussion).

The first movement begins with a soft introduction which lays out some of the important building blocks of the concerto’s harmony, followed by a fiery, toccata-like virtuosic display. The lines in the movement are constantly mirrored and layered in an often dense maze of sound.

The heart of the piece, the slow movement, is essentially a Passacaglia built on slowly moving bass lines, mirrored layers of melody and open harmonic spaces. Strongly consonant in nature, its harmonies are built in imitative spirals, while the more angular climax uses compressions of the work’s opening harmonies.

Rather than closing with a faster dance movement, the brief, slow Aria suggests a courtly dance, and is expressive and pensive, ending with a sigh rather than a flourish.

Concerto with Echoes was written in the spring and summer of 2009 and was commissioned for Orpheus for the New Brandenburg project.

— Aaron Jay Kernis

Premiered in 2009, the three-movement Concerto with Echoes was commissioned by New York's conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra as part of a project to create companion pieces for each of Bach's six "Brandenburg" concertos. In choosing the last of the set, which derives distinctive color from the absence of violins, Kernis -- who directs the Minnesota Orchestra's acclaimed Composer Institute -- draws inspiration from Bach's initial bar, in which "spiraling solo violas, like identical twins, follow each other breathlessly through a hall of mirrors." (Kernis is the father of twins.) The music teems with echoes, not only of Bach but of other musicians who have paid him homage. Though densely contrapuntal and intensely virtuosic, it never feels scholastic or showy (or neo-baroque, for that matter). As with the Beethoven and Sibelius works on Thursday's program, the slow movement is the heart of Kernis' piece. One of his ripe lyric utterances, it seems fit company for Bach. The final aria, made memorable by a touch of reserve, is scarcely less impressive. The reduced orchestra sounded superb, the low strings relishing their moment in the sun.
Larry Fuchsberg, Minneapolis Star Tribune,02/06/2011
Also inspired by a Bach Brandenburg concerto was Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Aaron Jay Kernis' Concerto with Echoes. Unusual in the absence of violins, it mirrors Bach's sixth Brandenburg by using only violas, cellos, and basses in the strings. Opening with a gentle fluttering of the strings, the piece became more agitated and toccata-like before settling down to soothing tranquility with the gentle chiming of gongs and the rich resonance of the basses.
Steve Siegel, The Morning Call,08/10/2009
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