The Peabody Post

Recording and Performing Kernis’ Second Symphony

This is a guest post by violinist and GPD candidate Kaleigh Acord.


kernisblogLast week, the Peabody Symphony Orchestra spent three days recording Aaron Jay Kernis’ Second Symphony. This turbulent, athletic piece was written in response to political strife in the 1990s, with themes of discord and war. Marin Alsop, director of Peabody’s graduate conducting program and music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, took the podium for this process.

Mr. Kernis himself attended several of the sessions. He has a discerning ear and offered a lot of guidance during the process. Periodically, he interrupted to speak about the character of a particular passage, adjust the balance between various instruments, or even to ask for the glockenspiel to play with a different mallet. We played differently sized chunks in order to create a sort of buffet of options to splice together for a polished finished product. Sometimes we played two measures at a time, sometimes we played two pages at once. Having Mr. Kernis there helped us all to get a clearer picture of his intentions. We recorded for approximately eight hours over the course of three days.

We played the whole Symphony from start to finish for the first time on Thursday morning. Playing it straight through felt quite unfamiliar after recording it in smaller chunks. Some passages felt very different when they were an immediate reaction to the preceding material, and the required endurance of concentration was wearing. Friday night was our concert. For most of the audience, it was their first time hearing the work. For the orchestra, it was our last chance to play it together. Maestro Alsop spoke briefly about the political messages of the piece to inform–and warn–the audience of the music’s intentional cacophony. She remarked, “Does anyone ever win in war? I don’t know.” With this sobering introduction, we began. There was a different brand of determination than during the recording. The focus now was not to “document” the piece for posterity, but to create an experience for our listeners. I talked to several of my peers afterwards who all reported feeling more impassioned and invested in the piece during the performance than they had before. It suddenly was not about us anymore. It was a grand story of desperation, struggle, and humanity, told through the medium of an orchestra. Our performance was by no means perfect. However, we were all storytellers up on the stage, freshly engaged in a larger-than-life experience together.

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