Aaron Jay Kernis’s Tasty ‘Three Flavors’

June 21, 2015 Updated: June 23, 2015

American composer Aaron Jay Kernis has received many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. The latest release of his music, the beguiling “Three Flavors” (on Naxos) is further evidence of his talent. Those who think they don’t like contemporary music should give this a try. Kernis’s work, usually labeled neo-romantic, is both eclectic and imaginative, suggesting his influences without descending into mimicry.

“Three Flavors” is a work for piano and orchestra. The soloist on the recording is Andrew Russo, who has long been a champion of Kernis’s music, and he is accompanied by the Albany Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Alan Miller.

The work was conceived as an aural tasting of different cuisines.
Originally “Three Flavors” was written in 2002 as a concerto for an amplified toy piano, played by Margaret Leng Tan and the Singapore Symphony. Kernis later adapted the piece to feature a grand piano, which provides a better balance with a full orchestra.

The composer’s notes that accompany the album point out that the work was conceived as an aural tasting of different cuisines. The first movement, “Ostinato,” was inspired by Indonesian gamelan music. There is prominent use of metal percussion instruments in addition to the piano.

The “Lullaby–Barcarolle” movement is gentler. Written in anticipation of the birth of his twins, the composer’s aim is to suggest the smooth journey to life. The work shifts into high energy with the jazzy “Blue Whirl” (the third and final movement). It’s somewhat reminiscent of some of Leonard Bernstein’s orchestral works.

The album also contains two shorter works without orchestral accompaniment. The first is “Two Movements (with Bells)” written for violin and piano. Russo again plays the piano part and the violinist is James Ehnes.

The composer dedicated the piece to the memory of his father, Frank Kernis, who passed away in 2004. Frank was a jazz and blues fan and that is reflected in the work, albeit through the prism of Kernis’s sensibilities. It begins with the spiky “Poco Adagio” and the concluding section is “Song for My Father.” (Although this is the title of a famous jazz piece by Horace Silver, the music is entirely Kernis’s own.)

The second part is more introspective with sudden shifts of mood, a characteristic of Kernis’s music. Ehnes had performed “Two Movements (with Bells)” at its premiere in 2007 and he is excellent. Incidentally, despite the title, no bells are used in the work.

The last piece is a piano solo, “Ballad(e) out of the Blue(s)—Superstar Etude No. 3.” The three superstars referred to in the title are the early rocker Jerry Lee Lewis in the first part; in the second part, Thelonious Monk and the bebop movement; and in the last, George Gershwin and the blues.

The composer also cites Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, and Erroll Garner as jazz pianists he admires and wanted to suggest. He doesn’t actually quote from their work but there are passages that are definitely bluesy or jazzy.

Lovers of jazz and classical music should find something to savor here. Again, Russo is an outstanding interpreter of Kernis’s music.

The recording was made possible with grant funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, reminding us of the importance of government support for the arts as well as education.

Barry Bassis has been a music, theater and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.