Conjuring Gods

Review of Holst's The Planets and Kernis' Symphony of Meditations at Seattle Symphony by Tavis H.

On a muggy Wednesday morning, in a spacious office hovering over 2nd avenue, Gerard Schwarz told me that “the great piece of Holst really is The Planets, and it is a masterpiece…a masterpiece of inventions, of ideas.” Forty-eight hours later, he showed me. Never before had I beheld the privilege of hearing The Planets live, and what a treat it was. The seven movements are based, astrologically, on the Gods of the planets, and are written in a manner so impeccable it would seem that Holst single-handedly crafted the foundation of the modern perception of the Gods of antiquity. It is a truly eclectic composition capable of manifesting, with great clarity, aspects of each God’s persona with brilliant originality.

However, where the music is by leaps and bounds the cake of the performance, it is the interpretation, the tantalizing ganache, which makes the experience so unique and delectable. Although the totality of the symphony is a truly magical experience, watching Maestro Schwarz is always an unparalleled delight. His performance and command engages and captures, whisking away the listener on a physical journey of transcendence. By far the most enjoyable facet of Schwarz’s performance is his modesty. His style is never theatrically outrageous, like Karajan or Kleiber; however his is no forgettable performance. His sheer charisma carries the performance alone, and his emotion--always bridled, never unconvincingly frenzied--accents his Prussian control and sway with the tenderness of heart.

Together with the meshing of the music and the touch of the artists, a personal grandeur was brought to each movement. Just as many Romans had a unique affinity or a personal meaning for a particular god, Seattle Symphony and Holst, too, conjure a charming individuality for each deity. The power and conviction of the piece comes to a point where one might believe that an acolyte or high priest from each of the Gods’ shrines or temples was assigned to write a piece of music to convince the world that their god was the greatest, and then when done, all the pieces were put into a musical anthology and named The Planets.

The other portion of the evening was a premier of Aaron Jay Kernis’s Symphony No. 3, “Symphony of Meditations”, a piece as wondrous and soul-searching as the story behind its creation. In talking to Schwarz I learned of how the piece was originally scheduled to premiere last year. When Kernis was reading the texts that he used for inspiration (a modern translation, by Peter Cole, of an 11th century Sephardic poem by Solomon Ibn Gabirol’s) he realized its potential. “He was very taken by it and it became a larger piece than he originally anticipated” said Schwarz, regarding the fact that the piece was originally supposed to be about twenty minutes with a small chorus. “He’s the creative guy, he’s the genius…what am I going to say if you’re inspired to write something ‘don’t write it?’ So I said ‘sure, go for it’ and he did and he wrote a huge piece.” However Kernis’s symphony is not just a poem with music. It is also a tribute to his parents, who passed several years ago, and an exploration into his Jewish roots--a healing piece.

“Symphony of Meditations” eventually transformed into a full choral piece about thirty minutes long that has maintained Kernis’s wonderful modern touches as well as classical influences. Kernis has courted many of the possible tools of the symphony, and, with ingenuity, has given us a spiritual journey spiced with elegant charm and transporting grandeur. And while his composition is distinctively modern and quite fresh with newer conventions, Kernis has also created a piece almost Germanic in magnitude, reminiscent of Mahler’s 8th “Symphony of a Thousand”, but also contemplative in its theologi-grandiose nature, much like Glass’s 5th symphony. Ultimately it is a distinctly unique and complimenting addition to the American repertoire.

During the three movements, three soloists narrated the story, Robert Gardner (baritone), Hyunah Yu (soprano), and Paul Karaitis (tenor). Together they and the chorus took the audience through the power of despair, repentance, love, shame, and faith. Although the main body of the work was very engaging, the anti-climactic nature of the final movement was mildly disappointing. There was a grand crescendo halfway through, but then the audience was left in a state of anticipation neither being led to a sweet soft close nor a majestic ending. It seemed just to stop, leaving those I went with, and myself, to be rather confused by its sudden halt.

Despite this mild disappointment, Kernis’s 3rd was epic in every sense. When listened to, a true tintinnabulation of melodic enormity bores into the heart and sheds an inquisitive light upon ones soul which, although is enlightening and beautiful, also, dares to challenge the axioms of woe, awe, sadness, joy, beauty, and spirituality. Regardless of ones religious background, the premise of the piece is universal, for what better to unite the minds of many than a gesture of truth and what it means to belong in this world.

Tavis H.
July 2nd, 2009

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