Not many flute concertos suggest the grandeur of a Wagner opera. Fewer, likely, take inspiration from Jethro Tull, the progressive rock band that packed arenas in the 1970s and ‘80s. But these are among the ingredients in Aaron Jay Kernis’s Flute Concerto (2015), which flutist Marina Piccinini performs on a new Naxos recording with conductor Leonard Slatkin and Peabody Symphony Orchestra.
“To me it is a Wagnerian piece,” Piccinini said. “The scope and range of emotion and power was so huge that it is Wagnerian. It's extreme in every way.”
Piccinini asked Kernis to write the concerto as part of her ongoing commissioning effort to expand the flute concerto repertoire. She had grown frustrated by the fact that there is no flute equivalent to the Brahms Violin Concerto, for instance, and even modern flute concertos at times emphasize the instrument’s frillier, decorative qualities. “The first significant concertos we have, other than the Baroque pieces, are by Mozart, which are beautiful and fantastic,” she said, “but they are always a little bit lighter in scope when compared to other pieces.
Kernis’s Flute Concerto is cast in four movements, rather than the conventional three, and lasts nearly 30 minutes. It makes fearsome demands upon the flutist, opening on the instrument’s lowest note and soaring into the stratosphere. Its moods swing between gentle, stately dances and frenzied, virtuoso romps.
The New York-based Kernis knew he would be writing an expansive concerto early on. “I can't exactly pinpoint the moment where I said ‘I'm not going to just write a light piece, as so many flute concertos are,’” said Kernis, whose music has won numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize. “But I thought, ‘Who am I writing for? What are her special qualities?’ Marina is just such a gorgeous player, her sound is full of such depth and variety and color, and she's also a wonderful, substantial, deep person.”
In a nod to Piccinini’s heritage — her father is Italian and mother is Brazilian — Kernis introduces Italianate gestures such as a Venetian-style mandolin part in the second movement, titled Pastoral-Barcarolle. The fourth movement, Taran-Tulla, refers to another Italian dance, the tarantella, and to Jethro Tull, led by the flutist and singer Ian Anderson.
“When I was writing the piece, I started to research the band on YouTube,” said Kernis, who first heard Tull as a teenager growing up in suburban Philadelphia. “Especially influential was this amazing hour-and-a-half video from Tanglewood that Jethro Tull had done. Anderson had this gigantic, flaming afro of red hair and he was doing lots of flute solos with his typical techniques. I wrote to Marina and said, ‘This is going to be an important influence here.’ We talked about some of the techniques and I just wound up focusing on the singing into the flute.”
Slatkin, who conducted the Flute Concerto’s premiere with Piccinini and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in January 2016, says the orchestra part is similarly demanding.
“When I received the score it already looked very daunting,” he said. “Like a lot of Aaron's works, each movement starts as if it's going to be relatively simple in conception, and then it turns out to be quite complex. The flute writing is, in most ways, traditional. But he also ventures into some uncharted territories in terms of the upper register and the stamina of the flute. There are not too many moments when the flute is not playing something.”
Slatkin adds that Kernis’s concerto comes as more composers are stretching the flute’s expressive limits. “Now it’s considered a more versatile instrument than it was a century ago,” he observed. Similarly, Piccinini hopes Kernis’s concerto will eventually be taken up by other flutists. “My hope is this piece will join the classics of the flute literature,” she said. “But it takes time for that to happen.”
A Wartime Symphony
The Flute Concerto is coupled on the new release with two earlier works by Kernis. Piccinini is also featured in Air, a songlike piece composed in 1996 for violinist Joshua Bell. This release marks the premiere recording of the flute and orchestra arrangement for this work, also conducted by Slatkin. Then, Marin Alsop conducts Second Symphony (1991), Kernis’s potent response to the first Persian Gulf War.
The Gulf War — triggered by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 — today may seem like a remote chapter in American history but its lessons remain sadly relevant, said Kernis. The symphony’s third movement was influenced by news reports about the bombing of an apartment building by American forces, who mistook it for a military installation. Some 500 civilians were killed in the incident.
“Unfortunately, war doesn't go away,” Kernis noted. “It never disappears for very long. I think the piece definitely has relevance to our age, and what we are constantly being convulsed with around the world.”
The symphony launched a creative period from roughly 1991 to 1995 when Kernis focused on themes of war and genocide. It included two works reflecting on the Holocaust: the 1993 English horn concerto Colored Field, which won the prestigious Grawemeyer Prize in 2002, and Lament and Prayer (1995). Later pieces, including Musica Instrumentalis, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998, turned to the devices and forms of Renaissance and Baroque music.
As Kernis’s interests have shifted over time — the Flute Concerto is the latest in a series of concertos — his musical language has moved between softer and thornier sounds. “I've always had this push-pull relationship with consonance and dissonance,” he explains. “Sometimes there are a slew of pieces where it's 60 percent consonant and 40 percent more dissonant and then there are periods where it's the reverse.”
Thematically, Kernis says that global events are again fueling his musical imagination and he views the orchestra as a forum for exploring big ideas. In one upcoming piece, written for tenor Nicholas Phan, he plans to explore climate change and its impact on the food supply. Another work is expected to focus on the aftermath of the mass shootings in El Paso, TX and Dayton, OH. Says Kernis, “After the earlier period in the ‘90s, I wanted that to stop,” he said, and move on to other subject matter. “But the importance to me of engaging with things around us in my work seems not to completely go away.”
- Written by Brian Wise
Brian Wise writes about classical music for BBC Music Magazine, Musical America, and is the producer of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s national radio broadcasts.