Aaron Jay Kernis has won the 2002 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. Though little-known outside the music community, the honor carries a prestige within the industry along with a $200,000 cash prize dispersed over 5 years. Kernis picked up the award for Colored Field, a concerto written for cello and orchestra and premiered by Truls Mørk and the Minnesota Orchestra in 2000. The San Francisco Symphony premiered an earlier version of the piece written for English horn in 1994.
When reached shortly after the announcement, Kernis was characteristically calm but said he was “quite thrilled and elated” by the news. “It is a wonderful honor to receive this award for Colored Field, a work which I feel particularly close to. I am also very close to the terrific people associated with the work—from the original commissioners and soloist Julie Ann Giacobassi in San Francisco to Truls Mørk and the members and staff at the Minnesota Orchestra, and the recording teams as well—and am delighted to be able to celebrate this honor with them.”
Kernis says that aside from the rather dramatic though obvious effect of changing the solo instrument, the piece preserves his initial vision. “From the very beginning the work was conceived for ‘voice’ and orchestra. The English horn is one of the most vocal, fluid, and sinuous instruments I know, and when I decided I wanted to give a second life to the work I knew the cello and Truls Mørk would add additional resonance and projection of the emotional and musical content of what I’d already written.
The primary difference between the two versions, he explains, is the reconceptualization of the solo line for the wider and deeper range of the cello. “I originally was going to do significant re-orchestration but Truls convinced me to leave most of what I had untouched, leaving him and the conductor to work out the new issues of balance. Also since there are only a very few English hornists and orchestras out there that would tackle the challenges and length of the work, I’d hoped that this new version would enable the work to be heard more.”
Both this year’s Pulitzer (to John Corigliano for Symphony No. 2 for String Orchestra) and now the Grawemeyer were awarded to reworkings of previously premiered compositions. Kernis doesn’t see that as a problem. “I don’t think composers need to be wary of giving new lives to some of our existing works through different or similar mediums if the translation or transformation of them serves to bring across their essence. Of course this has been a practice used since before the time of Bach, but through much of the last century seems to have been frowned upon by some composers and critics.”
In the case of Colored Field, he says that “the new version brought out its vocal qualities in a more direct way. The original version for English horn is a bit more insular and emotionally subdued—this heightens the dramatic contrast with the orchestra—while as a more visible and traditional protagonist the cello intensifies the battle with the orchestra in other ways.”
The Grawemeyer is not the 41-year-old Philadelphia native’s first major prize. In 1998, Kernis won the Pulitzer for his String Quartet No. 2 (musica instrumentalis). In addition, he has received a Stoeger Prize from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, a Bearns Prize, an NEA grant, a Guggenheim fellowship, a Tippett Award, a New York Foundation for the Arts Award, a Rome Prize, and awards from BMI and ASCAP.
Kernis initially drew public attention after the New York Philharmonic premiered his first orchestral work, dream of the morning sky at the Horizons Festival in 1983. Other significant works include New Era Dance, commissioned for the 150th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic and recorded by the Baltimore Symphony, and the Grammy-nominated Air for violinist Joshua Bell.
Kernis has just finished his commission for the opening season of Philadelphia‘s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. His work, Color Wheel, will be premiered in December. He currently serves as the Minnesota Orchestra’s new music advisor.
In recent years, the Grawemeyer has been awarded to American composers such as Tan Dun for Marco Polo (1998); the late Ivan Tcherepnin for his Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra (1996); John Adams for his Violin Concerto (1995); Karel Husa for his Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra (1993); John Corigliano for Symphony No. 1 (1991); and Joan Tower for Silver Ladders (1990).