SEATTLE — After two COVID-related postponements, the world premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis’ Earth for tenor Nicholas Phan and seven instrumentalists took place on Jan. 28 in Seattle’s 536-seat Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall. Although the effects of the ongoing pandemic were reflected in both the large number of empty seats and the masked faces of audience members who braved Omicron, it could not dim the eloquence of a piece about climate change and its threat to life. Nor could it dull the voices of the composer, who conducted the work; poet-ecologist Kai Hoffman-Krull, whose three-part poem, “Seasons,” joined lines by William Wordsworth to form Earth’s libretto; and Phan, who sang just three weeks after undergoing knee surgery.
Earth, whose premiere was postponed from the summer of 2020, was one of many highlights of the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s annual two-weekend, six-concert Winter Festival. Each concert was preceded by short, free-to-the-public recitals. For this concert, which began with Mozart’s Violin Sonata No. 32 in B-flat major, K. 454, and ended with Beethoven’s Piano Trio No. 2 in G major, Op. 1, No. 2, a 30-minute “Introduction to Earth” segment replaced recitals that, on other days, showcased pianists Gilles Vonsattel, Inon Barnatan, Andrew Armstrong, and Max Levinson, violinists James Ehnes and Amy Schwartz Moretti, and Seattle Symphony principal cello Efe Baltacigil.
The “Introduction to Earth” segment included two short excerpts, background on Kernis and Hoffman-Krull’s meeting of hearts and minds at Yale, where Kernis teaches and Hoffman-Krull studied, and a potent discussion anchored by Kernis’ statement, “Climate change is the paramount issue of our time.” For the performance that followed, Kernis stood before a semi-circle of seven musicians: Phan, violinist Erin Keefe, violist Rebecca Albers, cellist Julie Albers, flutist Demarre McGill, oboist Mary Lynch VanderKolk, and hornist Jeffrey Fair.
Placing pianist Jeewon Park and her Steinway at the rear of the stage contributed to an ideal balance that, from Row D, enabled each instrument’s unique colors to project beautifully. Dress mixed informality — Kernis wore black chinos and a patterned shirt — with a contemporary approach that saw the other men dressed in black, women in black and royal blue, and Phan in a light-blue suit. The tenor, whose mildly British-accented English contributed to his exemplary diction, was in superb voice. His soft singing was often exquisite, and his fortes rang out with strength and conviction.
Hoffman-Krull’s text begins with the lines, “Why are seasons / no longer the seasons / of before?” The question, which is posed three more times during the piece, soon cedes to music and text that convey a sense of delight and wonder in the fresh promise of nature. To this critic, who has spent a few days in the Pacific Northwest’s San Juan Islands, where Hoffman-Krull works as an ecologist, Kernis’ music rings true.
Soon, however, words and music change tone. Mingled with sadness are the shadows of something unknown and foreboding that lay, at least temporarily, out of sight. As the second part of Hoffman-Krull’s poem begins, a mournful cello solo introduces music of concern and change. Kernis’ commentary grows especially eloquent on the words “Dust becomes confused / for air.” The hall resounded with alarm as the music increasingly depicted a planet out of balance. After four years of drought, dry wells, and sagging plants — “edges of leaves becoming / the colors of sun” — nine days of rain overflow the landscape. “What are seasons / when patterns / brake” [sic] and people forget that “our life is made from the living,” sang Phan with searing urgency.
After Kernis’ music cries out with earth and humanity’s plight, lines and harmonies grow even more potent as they express the consequences of our collective actions and inactions. Then, after the lines “The sun comes closer. / May we be like leaves / forming matter from light,” the music stops abruptly.
Many charged seconds later follows Earth’s final section, “Farewell.” Inspired by the “Abschied” of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, Kernis chose lines that Wordsworth wrote a few miles above Tintern Abbey on July 13, 1798. Tempos slow tellingly as the damage to earth and spirit sink in and the poet speaks of “the still, sad music of humanity.” But when Wordsworth progresses from sorrow to a place of metaphysical transcendence, Kernis’ music does not follow. Rather, it rings of confusion, chaos, scattered energy, insufferable winds, and piercing cries. Sadness and finality cap a rich work whose urgency demands to be heard.
Framing Kernis’ premiere were a mature work by the 32-year old Mozart and an early one from a 22-year old Beethoven. Highlighting the former was the liquid pianism of Ieva Jokubaviciute, who was far more successful in conveying the chiming joy of Mozart’s opening movement and the heavenly profundity of the middle Andante than substantially toned violinist Arnaud Sussmann. The differences continued in the final Rondo-Allegretto, where Jokubaviciute seemed to be having a freer and grander time than her partner.
No such quibbles about the Beethoven. Barnatan and violinist Tai Murray began with such uncommon poetry that the music’s unexpected transition from gravitas to song drew a smile from this listener’s face. The Largo was just as deeply felt, with Barnatan playing so softly at one point that you might have thought his Steinway was a spinet. Cellist Baltacigil was careful to never overpower Murray’s slimmer but shining sound. Toward the end of the movement, when Baltacigil finally had a brief solo passage, his tone displayed the richness Seattle Symphony loyals have come to expect from their principal cellist. One songful passage after another capped a marvelous, nigh-perfect performance that drew most audience members to their feet.
The Houston ensemble ROCO will perform Earth, with tenor Nicholas Phan, at 5 p.m. Feb. 26 at Houston’s Church of St. John the Divine. The concert will be livestreamed at ROCO.org, Facebook, and YouTube. The program will include works by Leanna Primiani, Jonathan Leshnoff, and Mussorgsky.