Presidential Politics and Kernis’s “Legacy”
Last night I was privileged to hear the premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis’s “Legacy” (2017), a concerto for horn, strings, harp, and percussion, performed by horn soloist Jonathan Boen, conductor Carlos Kalmar, and the Grant Park Orchestra. The concert took place on a gorgeous evening in Chicago’s Grant Park, and the work was a joint commission by Grant Park Music Festival and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. The 20-minute piece is structured in three distinct movements: “Will,” “Divided,” and “…Grace.” Full program notes can be accessed here.
Rather than provide a blow-by-blow review of the piece, which was excellent, I’d like to focus on the extraordinary way in which the piece concluded. In order to do that, however, I need to provide some context from the composer’s own program notes:
“In the months following President Barack Obama’s farewell address in Chicago, I began to turn my thoughts to composing this new horn concerto for tonight’s premiere at the Grant Park Music Festival.
“The President’s inspiring summation of the previous eight years of our history rests incongruously next to the daily turmoil that has taken hold since then. A great deal has been written about the idea of the former President’s ‘legacy’: a commitment to protect our air, water, health, children … which, since then is being torn down, many pieces at a time, every single day.”
In remarks to the audience before the performance, Maestro Kalmar did not explicitly name Obama but mentioned that Kernis’s work was inspired by “a former President” who gave a very important speech in Grant Park, but a short walk from the concert venue (Obama’s 2008 victory speech). Despite that bit of verbal tip-toeing, it was abundantly clear to all that Kernis was praising Obama’s legacy and expressing dismay at the Trump presidency, still barely 200 days old.
I always hold my breath when composers and performers make unequivocal political statements from the stage. At the same time, Kernis was also preaching to Obama’s hometown crowd, and he was likely to find many sympathetic ears in the Grant Park audience. In general, however, composers wishing to make a pointed political statement must be careful, as there are two great challenges here: (1) not to alienate listeners who may disagree; and (2) to create a final product that is musically convincing, regardless of its political message. As I will describe shortly, Kernis succeeded brilliantly on both accounts.
Composers have been making political and social commentary since the beginning of the art. Is there a formula, a blueprint, a playbook for effectively communicating extra-musical messages? This is a question that I have taught and written about, principally in a graduate seminar on Music and World Events Since 1945 at Roosevelt University.
If too specific, the music’s message may cause discomfort to some listeners. In John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls (2002), commissioned by the New York Philharmonic as a memorial to the victims of the 9/11 attacks, the names of certain victims are spoken aloud by a narrator, and this level of specificity makes the work “problematic” for some audience members; “I found myself oscillating wildly between loathing it and loving it” (both quotes from Adams’s autobiography, Hallelujah Junction, 266-7).
Another example of too-close-for-comfort: the original album cover of Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11 (2009-10), released by Nonesuch Records in July 2011, sparked widespread criticism for its grainy image of a plane approaching the second WTC tower. Reich bowed to pressure, issued an apology, and Nonesuch changed the album cover to a billow of cloudy smoke with no airplane. While Reich called the original image “very powerful” and cited its value as a “documentary photograph,” he approved the new cover in order to put the “focus back where it belongs, on the music.”
Kernis’s approach, however, was inclusive rather than divisive; universal rather than specific. He did it by quoting “Amazing Grace.” Near the end of the final movement (entitled “… Grace”), the horn soloist began to play “Amazing Grace” in D-flat Major in full, measured triple time. Kernis supplied orchestral commentary with resonant high percussion (often on beat 2), and with a few strident chromatic gestures in the violas, starting from a biting E-natural. Then two remarkable things happened: the orchestral strata gradually dissipated, as our soloist Jonathan Boen left his position next to the conductor’s podium, walked across the front of the stage, descended a few steps, and slowly proceeded down the aisle through dozens of rows of seating–all while continuing to repeat “Amazing Grace” in full. The final strain of “Amazing Grace” was for horn solo (as Maestro continued to beat time), but by this time, Mr. Boen was so far away from my seat in the 20th row that his noble sound naturally faded into the distance.
It was a fascinating experience. On one level, it was a specific yet veiled reference to Obama, who sang “Amazing Grace” during his eulogy of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine victims shot and killed by Dylann Roof on June 17, 2015, at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. And Mr. Boen’s reverential march down the Grant Park aisle reminded me of a solemn liturgy, perhaps a funeral procession.
On another level, however, the song is universally known, and thanks in part to Obama’s eulogy, it has for many people around the world accrued layers of meaning on religious, extra-religious, political, and historical planes. Easy to sing, exploring basic human themes of forgiveness and redemption, “Amazing Grace” is really a song for everyone. Just as the congregation of 5,500 people sang along with Obama in 2015, a few concertgoers on Saturday night in Grant Park hummed or intoned portions of the song as Mr. Boen passed by.
It was also a communal moment in that the concerto soloist, usually a hallowed and exalted member of the performance, shed his traditional spotlight and joined us, the crowd, the listeners. How often do members of the audience get that close to the soloist, apart from the lucky few sitting in the first row? The whole thing made us feel like an active part of the concerto’s conclusion. We were in the middle of it. We were seated between the soloist and orchestra, the antiphonal placement reminiscent of Ives.
The effect was quite different than that of John Corigliano’s Symphony no. 3 “Circus Maximus” for Large Wind Ensemble (2004). At the symphony’s climax, in its sixth movement, an entire marching band parades up and down the aisles of the concert hall (check out the great photo from this 2013 New York Times review). In Corigliano’s case, the result is a cacophonous, in-your-face disturbance symbolizing the gratuitous “barbarity” that “dominates” modern entertainment (in his program notes, Corigliano draws a correlation between this and the brutal circus maximus of ancient Rome). This moment made a frightening imprint on me at its New York premiere in Carnegie Hall in 2005.
For Kernis, the “Amazing Grace” ending produced a calming, valedictory effect on a breezy evening near the Chicago lakeshore just after sunset. It drew listeners together and provided for a musically satisfying close, regardless of its political or historical references. The warmth of the closing D-flat Major represented a half-step progression from the opening D Major diatonic set of the first movement–the type of long-range harmonic plan germane to Mahler or Richard Strauss.
Its political message, however, was timely. That very afternoon, August 12, in Charlottesville, Virginia, one person was killed counter-protesting the 2017 Unite the Right Rally, a gathering of white supremacist, neo-Conferedate, neo-Nazi, and alt-right groups. President Trump was widely criticized for his comments failing to single out and clearly condemn white supremacist and neo-Nazi activity–comments that White House staff and Vice President Pence immediately sought to clarify. Multiple news outlets such as The Guardian and Al Jazeera connected the rally to the 2015 Charleston church massacre.
Classical music is often criticized for its stuffy, “elitist” performing traditions and for its inability to react rapidly to social or political phenomena. (Also keep in mind that another early review of the premiere panned the “Amazing Grace” ending as “lame” and “trite,” while the Chicago Tribune was lukewarm overall.) In my view, however, the claim of elitism is often invalid or overstated, and Kernis’s “Legacy” provides an elegant rebuttal. Through a nuanced and inviting web of musical and dramatic symbols and references, and through unifying sonic elements such as the “Amazing Grace” tune, Kernis crafted a timely, effective, and eloquent musical statement. I hope you get a chance to hear this work soon.
Copyright Edward “Teddy” Niedermaier 2017; no reproduction without permission
(please contact me if interested in reproduction or redistribution)