Aaron Jay Kernis, born in Philadelphia in 1960, is tremendously successful, and has already won both the Grawemayer Award and the Pulitzer Prize. He studied with composers as diverse as John Adams, Charles Wuorinen and Jacob Druckman. Kernis is a processor of myriad influences into something personal and highly colourful, as Goblin Market proves extraordinarily well. It's a setting for narrator and ensemble of Christina Rossetti's remarkable and ambiguous multi-layered poem from 1859.
In my experience, works which include a narrator frequently fail either because the narrator does not know how to communicate or because the composer has not provided suitable dramatic opportunity for such communication to take place. Neither is the case here: Kernis knows that the only way for a setting of this poem to work is to make it overtly dramatic, the ensemble illustrating, shadowing and underlining the words, creating atmosphere, and the narrator's part is thus precisely notated. This would be as nothing, of course, if Mary King were not such a superb narrator. She reads the text for what it is, a dramatic poem, enjoying every nuance of darkness and danger, and changing speed and inflexion with precision and facility.
It is difficult to describe Kernis's music precisely because it is so multicoloured. He has the kind of ear for texture and colour that his teachers Adams and Druckman have, but his melodic style is frequently wide-ranging and angular (often quite Bergian, indeed) and he enjoys plundering reminiscences of jazz, or Ravel, or both, with some Stravinsky for good measure, in order to create atmospheres that are nevertheless entirely his own. He is also not afraid of using instrumental effects and melodic tags to identify characters: the Leitmotif, in other words. I have already praised King; I must do the same for The New Professionals, who not only accept the manifold challenges presented by Kernis's score but clearly enjoy them enormously, and Rebecca Miller's incisive direction. This should be heard, and Kernis should write an opera.
Enthusiasm for Goblin Market should not blind one to the high-octane romp that is Invisible Mosaic, a dazzling, mercurial essay in orchestral texture and colour. It's quite a diffuse work, and technically challenging, but there's not a moment that's not ear-catching. As with Goblin Market, it presents evidence of huge enjoyment on the part of its performers.