Kernis: Color Wheel (CD Review)

Also, Symphony No. 4 “Chromolodeon.” Giancarlo Guerrero, Nashville Symphony. Naxos 8.5598.38

By Karl W. Nehring and John J. Puccio

First, a word from Karl:
A while back I reviewed a disc of compositions by Sessions and Panufnik. Both were in effect concertos for orchestra, and both were composed for the 1981 centennial of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. After listening a couple of times to get a general sense of the music on this release of two compositions by American composer Aaron Jay Kernis (b. 1960), I then took a first look at the liner notes (written by Kernis himself) and discovered to my surprise that “Color Wheel was composed especially for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s opening concerts in Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in 2001, and in celebration of the orchestra’s centennial.”

As you might expect of a work composed for such an occasion, Color Wheel is brash and exuberant, a piece that allows the orchestra to really strut its stuff. The performance on this new Naxos CD was recorded 15 years later (2016), not by the Philadelphians, but by the Nashville Symphony under the direction of Maestro Giancarlo Guerrero. Another interesting tidbit from Kernis’s liner notes is his explanation that “long before starting it I met with architect Roland Vinoly and acoustician Russell Johnson to learn about the development of the new hall… Initially I’d intended that Color Wheel would explore specific spatial characteristics of this new hall… I eventually decided to concentrate on exploring the unique qualities of the orchestra itself, employing a wide array of contrasts in dynamics and sounds in what I hoped would be a vivid new musical experience.” So, in light of all that, how do the more modest Nashville forces measure up to the challenge of performing music written especially for the formidable Philadelphians? In  my estimation, they do themselves proud.

Color Wheel opens dramatically with a big blast of brass and percussion, followed by a bit of a respite, then another blast, then more introspection. Suddenly the sound profile shifts. The lead gets passed among various sections of the orchestra, with an underlying pulse, which you can feel more than hear, keeping everything in line. At about 10 minutes in, the pulse changes. The energy continues unabated, though, reaching a peak not long after minute 13. A sound that really stands out after 14 minutes or so is a bass line that calls to mind something you might expect to hear on a jazz recording featuring, say, Christian McBride. The pulse gains more drive as Color Wheel rolls on, becoming more frantic than ever as the finish line comes into view. Heaving chords build toward a climax. Surprisingly, for a piece that has sounded anything but “conventional” in sonority and structure, the ending sounds much more conventional that you might expect. All in all, an interesting piece, one that shows off the power and versatility of the modern symphony orchestra. For audiophiles, it will also reveal the power and versatility of your audio system.

Kernis’s Symphony No. 4 “Chromelodeon” (Kernis explains how he came up with this odd term in his liner notes) is also a work that was commissioned, in this instance by the New England Conservatory of Music for its 150th anniversary in 2018. In contrast to the loud opening measures of Color Wheel, the symphony seems to emerge gradually from silence, not surprising for a movement aptly titled “Out of Silence.” Gentle percussion, then strings, establish somber mood. As the movement develops, you notice a four-note motif that weaves in and out of the fabric of the music as the movement moves forward. The energy level builds, the tempo speeds up, and the overall mood becomes increasingly agitated. Later, the tempo decreases, but the drama builds, leading to a tympani outburst. As the movement comes to an end, there is a big buildup, then silence, until the movement ends quietly with the sound of a flute.

Giancarlo Guerrero
The second movement, titled “Thorn Rose | Weep Freedom (after Handel)” opens with brash chords from the brass, joined later by the strings, then settling down to a softer mood with woodwinds in the lead, and then a rather archaic-sounding contribution from a string quartet. In the movement, the longest of the symphony at more than 12 minutes, the lead is taken by different sections of the orchestra, including a piano for a brief stretch. At around 7 minutes there is some quiet, restless playing from the strings, followed a couple of minutes later by the winds. There is a big climax at about 10 minutes in, some snare drum action, followed by brass, flute, and then the movement ends with the return of the archaic quartet. The movement – like the symphony as a whole – comes across as dramatic but a bit of a hodgepodge.

The brief (5:50 in this performance) final movement, titled “Fanfare Chromelodia,” begins with, you guessed it, fanfare gesture from the brass section, with another fanfare gesture near the end of the piece before the big ending with brass bellowing and bass drum pounding. Layered in between are contributions for the percussion section, some fluttering woodwinds, and some frenzied strings running up and down. Again, plenty of energy, but still a bit of a hodgepodge.

In the final analysis, although I found much of the symphony interesting to hear, it never really came across as a symphony to my ears. To be honest, I preferred Kernis’s Symphony No. 2, which I reviewed for The $ensible Sound back in  the late 1990s. That is a remarkable work, well, worth seeking out, and there are two other interesting Kernis compositions included on the CD (originally on Argo but rereleased on the Phoenix label). This new recording from Naxos is not without merit, however, and I can recommend it to those who are not intimidated by the very idea of contemporary music. There are some truly imaginative passages to be found, and the engineers have done a fine job. Bravo to Naxos for letting us hear interesting music we might never get to hear otherwise!

KWN

And now a word from John:
I have to admit that I do not stay as abreast as Karl of all current music, and unless I review something, I don’t often hear about new recordings or new composers. Well, American composer Aaron Jay Kernis (b. 1960) is hardly “new,” and I’ve already reviewed one of his pieces a few years ago. But I still wasn’t really familiar with him. So, I looked him up.

According to Wikipedia, Mr. Kernis “is a Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award-winning American composer serving as a member of the Yale School of Music faculty. Kernis spent 15 years as the music advisor to the Minnesota Orchestra and as Director of the Minnesota Orchestra's Composers' Institute, and is currently the Workshop Director of the Nashville Symphony Composer Lab. He has received numerous awards and honors throughout his thirty-five year career.” So, there you have it.

The first of two Kernis works on the present album he wrote in 2001 for the Philadelphia Orchestra and titled Color Wheel. Like a color wheel in art that shows the relationships of all the colors in the visible spectrum, Kernis’s Color Wheel attempts to show at least some of the many tonal colors of the musical world.

The piece is in a single twenty-odd minute movement that moves from one extreme to another with benefit from some hints of melody, although nothing you’re going to start whistling afterwards. It appears to be more the way it’s title implies, a swirling cycle of musical colors. As such, it’s fun to listen to, at least the first time through. Beyond that, I give no guarantees. What’s beyond doubt, though, is the elegance and precision of the Nashville Symphony under Maestro Giancarlo Guerrero. They negotiate the twists and turns of the music with an assured polish. As the music moves from light to dark, from poetic to prosaic, from classical to jazz, from harmonic to melodic to rhythmic, the orchestra catches all the nuance in between. It may just grow on me.

The second piece on the disc is Kernis’s Symphony No. 4, written in 2018 and subtitled “Chromelodeon.” Yeah, I had to look this one up, too. I should have just read Kernis’s booklet note, which said the same thing I googled. Namely, a chromelodeon is a microtonal instrument invented by composer Harry Partch, as well as an eight-piece indie rock band from Philadelphia that was active between 2000 and 2007. Kernis tells us it was also a cult progressive rock band from the late 60’s. Take your choice.

More important, Kernis tells us that for him “chromelodeon” means “chromatic, colorful, melodic music performed by an orchestra. 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 disc jacket describes the symphony as an exploration of “the coexistence of opposing musical forces to powerful, pensive and touching effect.”

Anyway, I enjoyed the symphony more than I did the previous piece, whether or not it’s an actual “symphony” in the conventional sense. Perhaps it’s because I’m old-fashioned and the symphony had a more traditional structure and content. The first of three movements, “Out of Silence,” is thoughtful, moody, maybe even reflective. Whatever, it’s mostly dreamy, slow-moving, and contemplative until the final third, ending on a mildly dark, if also rousing, note. The second movement, “Thorn Rose | Weep Freedom,” exposes what the composer calls “a melody vaguely influenced by Handel,” followed by variations on the theme. The initial string quartet he incorporates in the background is a strong part of the contrasts he seeks to define. Some parts of the movement work; other parts seem more than a bit odd merely for the sake of eccentricity. The final movement, “Fanfare Chromelodia,” is short and sparingly regal, ending the symphony in a triumph of sorts. Both works on the disc are world première recordings.

Producer Tim Handley and engineers Gary Call and Trevor Wilkinson recorded the music at the Laura Turner Concert Hall, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville, Tennessee in November 2016 and February 2019. As with most of the recordings of the Nashville Symphony, this one sounds quite natural. Although it’s a little shallow in front-to-back depth and slightly narrow in orchestral width, it doesn’t detract much from the overall realism of the sound. It’s well balanced throughout, with no elements of the frequency spectrum sticking out obtrusively, and even though the extreme ends of the scale, the highs and the lows, may be somewhat unimpressive, the whole is pleasingly listenable.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa