Composer blows his own horn

Jonathan Boen performing Aaron J. Kernis’ “Legacy.” – Photo by Norman Timonera

Classical Music Critic

On Aug. 11th the Grant Park Orchestra presented the world premiere of a new work by American composer Aaron Jay Kernis. “Legacy” is a concerto for horn co-commissioned by the Grant Park Music Festival and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, and is dedicated to Barack Obama. It is the 44th president’s legacy that the title refers to.

The music has some engaging passages, including an urgent horn melody in the first movement, and a brief noble line for horn in the second. But the work meanders, mostly in joyless fashion. The few pretty moments are smothered in modern gestures which evoke no feeling and tell no story, let alone generate a sense of any kind of legacy.

Jonathan Boen, principal horn of the Grant Park Orchestra, gave a committed performance. Even his splendid virtuosity could not save the piece.

There was mention in the program of an incident in 1983 when conductor Zubin Mehta criticized Kernis from the podium during an open reading, (not a formal concert), and, the note says, “Kernis vigorously defended his handling of the orchestra.” What the note doesn’t say is that Mehta was pointing out that an attractive and important melody in one part of the orchestra could not be heard over the rest of the music Kernis had scored for the other players.

Over 30 years later, Kernis still has the same problem.

The orchestra for this concerto includes only strings, harp, and percussion, yet rather than working together, they at times clearly worked against each other. Notably, what might have been interesting melodies in the tuned percussion were drowned out by the strings. It seems unlikely that conductor Carlos Kalmar was to blame, as he offered very positive spoken comments to the audience about the piece during the concert. (Although you have to wonder about a composition where the conductor warns you beforehand that you might not actually know when it is over.)

One of the strangest things about “Legacy” is that at the one point Kernis finds inspiration in a musical moment in the Obama presidency, he turns treasure into tripe. Kernis ends the concerto with a dull, uninspired version of “Amazing Grace,” invoking the memory of Obama singing it in 2015 at the funeral of one of the victims of the church shootings in Charleston, S.C. in June of that year. Obama’s various musical imperfections were more than made up for with a performance full of heart and soul, depth of meaning, and evident honesty. He made the hymn speak for him in that moment and it was genuinely uplifting. Kernis, on the other hand, turns it into a depressing dirge tacked on to the concerto, not integrated into it. His dull, pale version also requires Boen to walk off the stage as he is playing and disappear into the audience.

Has Kernis, using this hymn in funereal fashion, metaphorically declared Obama dead? The idea that a politician can make no contribution to society after he’s left politics is decidedly off-putting and moreover, thoroughly depressing. One wonders how Obama would react to the idea that he has now been ushered off-stage by Kernis and rendered irrelevant.

“Legacy” is Kernis blowing his own horn. The virtue-signalling in his own program note was the only truly well-formed element of the first-ever performance, and I doubt I’m the only listener who was not the least interested in what the composer thinks about Obama’s water policy.

This new work fared particularly poorly, placed as it was between two successful pieces of program music. Kalmar opened the concert with a colorful and taut account of the Overture to “The Tsar’s Bride” by Rimsky-Korsakov. The performance was full of excitement and power.

The concert closed with Tchaikovsky’s “Manfred Symphony,” which moved from strength to strength. The orchestra was transformed into a marvelous storyteller, bringing Lord Byron’s dramatic poem to life.

Kalmar shaped the music with skill. The opening was movement had chilling rumbles while the second movement had impish charm. Throughout there were gleaming phrases and smooth transitions. The power and anguish of the conclusion was marvelous.

Before the concert started, there was brief recognition of Charlene Zimmerman, the recently retired principal clarinet for the GPO, who had played in the orchestra for 39 years and performed in more than 1,300 concerts, including as soloist. After the concert, her husband posted a photo of the two of them at that night’s performance on Facebook, noting it was the first time they had ever been in the audience at the Grant Park Music Festival together.