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November 16, 1999

Modern ComposersThe Lark Quartet plays Aaron Jay Kernis. String Quartet No. 1 ("musica celestis"); String Quartet No. 2 ("musica instrumentalis"). Performed by The Lark Quartet. (Arabesque Recordings, CD # Z6727) 1999.

American composer Aaron Jay Kernis is something of a musical prodigy. Born in Philadelphia in 1960, Kernis was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music in 1998, one of the youngest composers ever to receive that award. After studying clarinet and violin, he taught himself piano and composition while in middle school, and at age fifteen he wrote his "first really big piece." He studied at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Manhattan School of Music, and Yale School of Music, and had his first published orchestral work, Dream of the Morning Sky, premiered in 1983 by the New York Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta.

Kernis draws inspiration for his work from many sources. He says that the String Quartet No. 2, the work for which he was awarded the Pulitzer, is "a piece very much influenced by dance and dance music," particularly baroque dance music. He says that he plays a bit of J.S. Bach's music every day on his piano, and the flavor of those works shows up in this quartet.

Kernis' work, particularly his small-scale works such as these quartets, has been characterized as being marked by "engaging wit and expressive lyricism." Kernis has stated that among his objectives in his compositions are "to bring beauty back into music" and also to express an "exuberance and energy" in his work. He says that "there was a lot of fearsome music in this century" that created a barrier between contemporary composers and their audiences, and caused many listeners to retreat to the comfort of Mozart and Beethoven rather than struggle with the challenges of the new music. Kernis wants to break down that barrier and use his music to communicate with audiences, and in these two works he is largely successful.

The Second Quartet is in four movements, the first and last of which are described in the liner notes as "a kaleidoscope of ancient dances." The first movement begins with an energetic pastiche of dance forms and styles, slows somewhat in the middle section, which includes a "charming Canzonetta" and a "moody Musette," then returns to the exuberance of the opening section with a "climactic, grand melody" to end the movement. The second movement is somewhat less frenetic, and includes two alternating sarabande themes, "interspersed with furious bursts of faster, more expressionistic music," a pattern that undergoes intensive development until "the whole thing climaxes in a unison, cantorial wail, an emblem of the strong spiritual tendency" of Kernis' later works.

The Lark Quartet, founded in 1984, is one of the most respected and busiest chamber groups in the country. The all-women group is the resident ensemble at Columbia University's Miller Theater, tours with Peter Schickele (a.k.a. P.D.Q. Bach), and maintains an active touring and recording schedule of their own. The group tries to strike a balance between traditional repertoire and new works, including commissions such as the Kernis quartets, both of which were commissioned specially for the group.

You can hear The Lark Quartet perform the String Quartet No. 2 ("musica instrumentalis") by Aaron Jay Kernis on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, November 18 at 7:00 PM as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

-- J. Green

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