Kernis Takes On Ibn Gabirol in ‘Meditations’

“Your works are wondrous and I know it acutely” — From Part 1 of Solomon Ibn Gabirol’s “Kingdom’s Crown,” translated by Peter Cole

What do you get when you pair an 11th century Spanish poet with a modern American composer? Last week, the audience at the Seattle Symphony found out at the world premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis’ “Symphony of Meditations,” based on the poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol.

Kernis is one of the country’s most-renowned composers and finds inspiration from an often surprising mix of sources, using jazz, Latin music, rap and poetry. He rose to fame at a very young age, having a work premiere with the New York Philharmonic in 1983 at the age of 23, and has won a number of major awards, including the prestigious Grawemeyer Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

“I’ve been following and collecting poetry over the years. What’s most important to me is finding poetry that I really emotionally connect with and words that become so internalized and personalized for me that they seem utterly necessary to set,” said Kernis. “Certainly, this text was a case of something I absolutely needed at this time in my life to address.”

I spoke with Kernis by phone last Thursday, just before the world premiere:

Following the death of his parents, Kernis was introduced to Gabirol’s work, translated by his friend, poet Peter Cole. Kernis mainly reflected on Gabirol’s longest poem, “Kingdom’s Crown,” a lyrical meditation often used in Yum Kipper services that deals with the universal themes of life, death and one’s relationship to God.

“Symphony of Meditations,” which was commissioned by Seattle Symphony’s music director and conductor Gerard Schwarz, takes on many of the heavy themes for which Kernis has become famous. His other recent works include “Lament and Prayer” and “Colored Fields,” which reflect on the Holocaust; “Second Symphony,” which is about the Persian Gulf War; and “Still Movement with Hymn” tackled the Bosnian genocide.

“Meditations” is written in three movements and combines vocal solos with the voices of the Seattle Symphony Chorale. Listen to selections of the premiere, courtesy of the Seattle Symphony: