Bellingham Festival of Music opens with West Coast premiere of Kernis' 'Dreamsongs'


Aaron Jay Kernis, Bellingham Festival of Music

Award-winning composer Aaron Jay Kernis will be in attendance when the Bellingham Festival of Music presents his "Dreamsongs" for cello and chamber orchestra July 5, 2013.


Award-winning composer Aaron Jay Kernis will be in attendance when the Bellingham Festival of Music presents his "Dreamsongs" for cello and chamber orchestra July 5.

Featured in this work will be the popular cellist Joshua Roman. This West Coast premiere (just the second performance) of "Dreamsongs," which was inspired by dance music from around the world, is in celebration and kickoff of the festival's 20th anniversary season.

The concert at Western Washington University's Performing Arts Center also will include works by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.

The Bellingham Festival of Music brings renowned professional musicians from major North American orchestras to the city each summer for a series of performances.

Kernis is the winner of the prestigious 2002 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition and in 1998 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music for his "String Quartet No. 2."

The genesis of "Dreamsongs" came in part from the close relationship Kernis has with Joshua Roman, whom he has known from the time that Roman was with the Seattle Symphony.

"Joshua is a wonderful, inventive musician who welcomes challenges and new approaches," Kernis said. "He's been a terrific collaborator. We actually live down the street from each other in New York City, and frequently I'd text him and pop down the street to show him something I'd just worked on."

During the development of "Dreamsongs," Kernis would walk down the street and have Roman play the cello parts as they worked together to craft the concerto.

"The initial idea was to become familiar with music from around the world and write various small movements related to dance music of various cultures," Kernis said. "Instead the piece turned out to need only two movements rather than many - and the first wound up coming out of my own melody - a singing melody (heard right at the opening) that keeps on being varied and transformed throughout."

The second movement was inspired by the sound and playing technique of the kora, an African string instrument crafted from a large gourd.

"For a large part of it," Kernis said, "the cellist plucks his instrument with a pick (this is not typical in the cello repertoire), and the music ranges widely, in dramatic ways, between the opening plucked music, lyric, singing melodies, dramatic outbursts and culminates in a cadenza for the cellist which often suggests rock-n-roll guitar, and ways that music grew out of African roots . ... Watch for the djembe, a native instrument like a very distinct bongo!"

Kernis was born in 1960 in Philadelphia, where early violin and theory studies along with choral singing led him to begin composing at 12 and take composition lessons at 15. As a young composer, Kernis studied with Jacob Druckman, John Adams and Charles Wuorinen.

"I've been greatly stimulated by composers who bring nuance and forcefulness to writing for orchestra (like all three of those composers). But if I had to name a few favorite composers who inspire me continually I'd say J.S. Bach, Jan Sibelius, Gustav Mahler, and Arvo Pärt, but there are many others."

Kernis' first large orchestral composition, "Dream of the Morning Sky," was a great success at its reading by Zubin Metha and the New York Philharmonic at the Horizons Festival in 1983 and helped propel Kernis into the public eye. Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships soon followed, as well as a Rome Prize, which enabled him to live abroad for two years at the American Academy in Rome before returning to settle in New York City.

Kernis currently serves as director of the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute, in partnership with the American Composers Forum, which provides up to eight composers with the chance to hear their music performed by a professional orchestra after a weeklong immersion under Kernis' trained and experienced eye. In addition, he has taught composition at the Yale School of Music since 2003.


The performance of "Dreamsongs" is at 7:30 p.m. July 5. Tickets can be purchased through the WWU Box Office by calling 360-650-6146 or go to For more on the festival, go to

Robert D. Lynch has a Ph.D. in musicology from New York University.

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