Aaron Jay Kernis: Color Wheel  – Symphony n° 4 “Chromelodeon” 
Nashville Symphony Orchestra, Giancarlo Guerrero (conductor)
Recording: Laura Turner Concert Hall, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville, Tennessee (November 17-19, 2016  and February 21-23, 2019  – 52’13
Naxos American Classics 8.559838 – Booklet in English
Nashville Symphony’s recording of two works by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Aaron Jay Kernis comes with the sad news that they have canceled all live performances until July 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. So this superb recording of the Kernis Color Wheel and Chromelodeon, led by musical director-conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, is a chance to appreciate and support this vital orchestra and its furloughed musicians.
Color Wheel had its premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2001, a commission to occasion the opening of Verizon Hall, the orchestra’s new home and in celebration of the orchestra’s centennial. Kernis grew up in Philadelphia, knew the dynamics of the orchestra’s famed ‘sound’ and conceived an orchestral concerto of “sound and color.” Color Wheel was well-received when it premiered, but perhaps not fully appreciated for its full artistic merits because the spotlight was more on the grand opening of a new concert hall for the Fabulous Philadelphians, not to mention Verizon Hall’s acoustics which were initially less than optimal and would be later much improved.
Kernis’ straightforward concept of musical colors is the jumping-off point for the bombast of musical hues, bold, mixed or morphing, and abstractly evocative. In the Naxos CD booklet, Kernis explains his “fundamental use of variation as a unifying and essential creative compositional approach.” Structurally, Kernis’ single movement trajectory turns the orchestral wheel in waves of kinetic motion. The composer notes that he was fascinated by the whirling dervishes of Sufi dancers. That same sense of transcendence imbues this work. The Nashville Symphony conjures all of its raucous energy in this performance. Its surface can initially strike as cinematic, in the best sense, but roiling under is a clamorous orchestral matrix that keeps pulling you deeper into its mysteries.
In stark contrast to Color Wheel in structure is Kernis’ Symphony n° 4, composed in 2018. Kernis was inspired by the chromelodeon, a microtonal instrument that was invented by 60s progressive rock composer Harry Partch. The first movement, “Out of Silence”, opens with gentle wending chimes, then clarinet and viola fade, progressing to dense instrumentation that vaults to a primal orchestral scream. The second movement, “Thorn Rose | Weep Freedom (after Handel)”, escalates the orchestral fury. The last movement, “Fanfare Chromelodia”, is a propulsive musical mosaic. It is contemplative, projecting both hope and disquieting energy.
In his CD notes, Kernis observes, “This new symphony is created out of musical elements, not images or stories, though I would not be surprised if the influence of living in the chaos of the world today – at a ‘molecular’ emotive level – didn’t play a part in its creation.” The piece resonates even more now giving a symphonic voice to the devastating chaos we are all now experiencing in 2020.
Precision sound engineering on this recording by Gary Call (Color Wheel) and Trevor Wilkinson (Chromelodeon) captures Nashville Symphony’s radiant interpretive artistry in the environs of the orchestra’s home, the acoustically fine Laura Turner Concert Hall. Let’s hope they get to return there soon.
Lewis J. Whittington