Aaron Jay Kernis (b. 1960)

Aaron Jay Kernis is one of the most acclaimed American composers of the last twenty years.

Kernis was born in Philadelphia. In his early teens, he took up the piano, violin, and then composition. He was largely self-taught. At the age of 16, he won the first of 3 BMI Student Composer Awards. He later studied composition at the Manhattan School, San Francisco Conservatory, Yale, and the American Academy in Rome, with composers including John Adams, Jacob Druckman, Charles Wuorinen, Morton Subotnick, and Harrison Birtwhistle.

At the age of 23, his Dream of the Morning Sky was premiered by the New York Philharmonic. He has arranged one of the movements of his String Quartet No. 1 as the Musica Celestis for string orchestra, which is one of his most popular works. He became the youngest person to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his String Quartet No. 2 in 1998. (He had previously been the runner-up four years earlier.) He was also the youngest winner of the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in 2002 for his English horn concerto, Colored Field, written for the San Francisco Symphony and later reworked in a version for cello.

Kernis has enjoyed a successful career in Minnesota. He was the Composer in Residence for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and Minnesota Public Radio in the early 90’s, where he wrote his first two symphonies, the Symphony in Waves and the Symphony No. 2, inspired by the First Gulf War in 1991, his Double Concerto for violin and guitar, and the piano quartet, Still Movement with Hymn, premiered on the St. Paul Sunday Morning public radio program, as well as his highly acclaimed Goblin Market, based on the poems of Christina Rossetti. He has been an artistic advisor with the Minnesota Orchestra since 1992, where he wrote the Air for violin for Joshua Bell and the Lament and Prayer for violin and orchestra for Pamela Frank. He has also been commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra, the BBC, Disney, Yo-Yo Ma, Emmanuel Ax, and the New York Philharmonic, in his latest work, a trumpet concerto for Phillip Smith, inspired by Kernis’ Jewish heritage listening to the shofar.

He has written many popular chamber works, many with whimsical titles, including the 100 Greatest Dance Hits for guitar and string quartet, the Superstar Etude for piano, and the Quattro Stagioni dalla Cucina Futurisimo (“The Four Seasons of Futurist Cuisine”) for narrator, violin, cello and piano. He is also an accomplished composer of art songs, such as the Simple Songs and Valentines. Many of his works draw on spiritual themes from the Old Testament and traditional church music such as chants and hymn tunes.

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