Ever since Beethoven denounced Napoleon in the Third Symphony and demanded that all men be brothers in the choral finale of the Ninth, there has been a certain type of composer who has felt that music, the most abstract and immaterial of all the arts, could have the power to change the world. Not all examples are salutary. Wagner's Ring of the Niebelung had positive humanist values, plotting the downfall of a master race headed by the Nordic deity Wotan, but his simultaneous glorification of that same godly brood went on to give twentieth-century anti-Semites plenty of grist for their mill. After the Second World War - that final, horrid spawn of Romantic-nationalist ideology - composers like Stockhausen, Wolpe and Goehr sought to replace Romantic music (in their eyes, the seductive soundtrack to the messy greed of capitalism) with mathematically organized music that mirrored the rationality of "socialist construction," leading the world to a better day. Noble thoughts - but as these Young Turks began to gray in the 1970s, they found themselves preaching to empty stalls.
American composers who have been politically "engagé," have tended to provide more positive examples: the ever-refreshing values of our vibrantly democratic society, combined with our physical distance from Europe, have given Americans an assumption of innocence in political matters, however naive, that persists to this day. Charles Ives brought the informal ethic of the New England Town Meeting into powerful if sometimes chaotic music, while Aaron Copland's streamlined ballets gave Americans a crystalline sense of the awesome breadth of their own land. Both have been healthy additions to our national culture.
It is this sense of innocence which lies at the heart of Aaron Jay Kernis' Colored Field: even the title has something simple and childlike about it. Presently the Minnesota Orchestra's new music advisor and a regular participant in Minnesota music-making for over a decade, he has become, like his mentor John Adams, one of the very few American composers to effectively continue Copland's powerful example - that of a populist whose music is as accessible as it is serious and well-crafted.
Like Adams, Kernis has written his share of music with overtones of political protest; a clutch of these works came along in the middle '90s, a time when the ugly political realities of the New World Order coincided with a turbulent period in his own life. Among them were the Second Symphony, an anguished protest over the human waste of the Gulf War; his Lament and Prayer for violin and orchestra (premiered and recorded by Pamela Frank and the Minnesota Orchestra), which commemorated "the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II and the Holocaust;" and the piano quartet Still Movement with Hymn (commissioned by American Public Radio and dedicated to Twin Cities arts philanthropist and Minnesota Orchestra Board Emeritus Director Kenneth N. Dayton), shaken into being not only by the unexpected death of an admired senior colleague, composer Stephen Albert, but by the disturbing news images coming out of Bosnia and Croatia.
Colored Field, first commissioned as a concerto for English horn and orchestra, is very much one of these works, and it shows Kemis at his absolute best: richly expressive, magnificently orchestrated, and structurally sound, this version is easily one of the best oboe-family concertos to be written since those of Strauss and Vaughan Williams. (Premiered by the San Francisco Symphony in 1994 and dedicated to the composer's parents, it was commissioned through the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Hugh Taylor to spotlight the superb gifts of Julie Ann Giacobassi, the orchestra's English hornist. It has been recorded by them on the Argo label with conductor Alasdair Neale.)
The new version for cello and orchestra, premiered at these performances by Truls Mørk, seemed a natural extension of the work for Kernis, since "I had originally conceived it vocally, and the cello seemed the next best cousin to an English horn. But it will give a different expression to the solo line, and extend the range downward quite a bit, though only when necessary. Julie Ann Giacobassi had so many wonderful colors in her playing - it will be interesting to discover how the cello changes the tone of the line." Kernis has availed himself of the opportunity to write the harmonically enriching double-stops which string instruments allow, but, surprisingly, has not substantially changed the last-movement cadenza. "At first I thought I'd write a really different one, but the material was too integral to the whole piece" to leave it aside.
Music from Blood·Soaked Ground
The work's first movement is also called "Colored Field," and its inspiration was stunningly direct. Kernis made a visit to the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau in 1989, where he fell in with a group that had a family from Brooklyn among them. 'Watching one of the children chew on a blade of grass, he suddenly realized that it came from blood-soaked ground. His subject, then, is murder, murder en masse, and he composes it out on a grand scale. The first and third movements are each a massive orchestral frieze (the finale lasts about 23 minutes), while the second, "Pandora Dance," is something of an interlude: Kernis re-makes the vibrant, pulse-shifting "Americana" scherzo of Leonard Bernstein and Walter Piston, but turns it in on itself to reveal a welter of ugly, repressed emotions. If Kernis' earlier music (like the joyous First String Quartet) shook out its hair and danced, now massive structural sections would shake with violence, or brood in sullen anger. It is the work's colossal sense of scope, combined with the strangely detached character of the solo role, that has always given the sense that it is a symphony.
After a mournful introduction with solo viola and oboe, the soloist is led in by the double string orchestra, whose halves lay different triads upon each other in minutely alternating duple and triple rhythms, producing the feel of a dark lullaby; the cello's theme, once introduced, falls downward in long phrases, then rouses itself upward in response to its own lament. But what can be a dream can readily change into a nightmare, and this rocking-rhythm music will develop into fearsome things as the movement progresses. The cello part revels in swift, curling runs of notes, or in slow, cantorial laments, both having a strong character of the Jewish and Eastern European music to which Kernis was profoundly drawn at the time.
Episodes try to divert the music's path: the first features skipping figures in the winds gradually piling on to one another in the same pitches, with a blurry effect like rain on a window. The next takes this effect one step further, the heterophonic piling on of voices liberated into free notation for the high strings, twittering like birds - but this diversion turns darker when the winds and brass break in with a violent Stravinskian cacophony. A stark, slow duet between the soloist and the low strings tries to call a truce, but the rocking rhythms return again throughout the orchestra, leading to a series of climaxes that blow across the stage like wind. The soloist protests in nervous, rapid outbursts, but these climaxes culminate in a passage of ugly, roiling music in which a broad melody in the strings and horns is deliberately marred by bass trombone and tuba, blurring the pitches with "wrong" entrances. In the last pages the cello recalls the opening with its downward falling line, backed up by the ashen tones of divided double basses backed up by low horns.
Kernis' guiding image for the second movement was that of "little black things slithering out of a box." (In the classical myth - close to the Judeo-Christian biting of the apple - the gods send a box to Pandora, who is forbidden to open it but does so out of curiosity, unleashing a plague of evils