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Moab beckons Pulitzer winner

Aaron Jay Kernis is Moab festival's resident composer.
Aaron Jay Kernis is Moab festival's resident composer.
Kim Pluti, Parallel Productions

In 1998, composer Aaron Jay Kernis received the Pulitzer Prize for his composition "Symphony No. 2," a work that was inspired by the devastating events in the Persian Gulf War.

The award, according to Kernis, who is the composer-in- residence for this year's Moab Music Festival, was a blessing and curse.

"It was a surprise," said the soft-spoken Kernis during a phone call from his home in the Bay area of California. "It was commissioned by Absolute Vodka. I was 32. The piece was a stark statement that was intended to be dramatic and provoke a visceral response to the war. But I didn't know how much impact it would have on listeners.

"However, as many Pulitzer Prize winners know, I will always be known until my death and beyond as a winner. And there is a fair amount of pressure that comes with such an award. I found myself competing with myself. I find I try to top the work with each new work I write."

Regardless of the pressure, Kernis said he is fortunate with his choice of livelihood. In fact, music, it seemed, chose him while he was a youngster in Philadelphia.

"It was by default in the beginning," he said. "I was in middle school, and they didn't have enough violinists. So the music teacher chose me to play the violin. And before that I participated in choirs and learned to read music."

Kernis began writing his own compositions when he was 11.

"By the time I was 14, however, I realized that I wanted to pursue composition as a career," he said. "And I've had some good luck with it."

That's no exaggeration. Kernis has written commissioned works for the New York Philharmonic, American Public Radio, Disney, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Aspen Music Festival and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

He has written works for violinists Joshua Bell, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and Pamela Frank, soprano Renee Flemming, English hornist Julie Ann Giacobassi and classical guitarist Sharon Isbin.

"In the beginning it was hard keeping focus," Kernis said. "I spent a lot of time being poor. And I did a lot of other jobs to make ends meet, and still focus on composing."

This is the first time Kernis will take part in the Moab Music Festival.

"I've never been there," he said. "I've only driven through Utah, and it's very pretty."

Kernis knew Moab Music Festival music director Michael Barrett while the two were students at the San Francisco Conservatory. They kept in touch and worked with each other occasionally throughout the years. This year, Barrett, along with festival artistic director Leslie Tomkins, felt the time was right, and they asked Kernis to come to the land of red rocks and arches.

Kernis will discuss and conduct his work "Nocturne." He will also conduct his own works "The Four Seasons of Futuristic Cuisine," "Mozart en Route" and selections from "Songs of Innocents."

Singing "Nocturne" and "Songs of Innocents" will be soprano Susan Narucki, who will also join trumpeter Stephen Burns in Bach's "Jauchzet Gott in Alle Landen," later in the festival.

"I'm looking forward to Moab," Kernis said. "I'm planning on taking some time for hikes as well."

If you go

What: Moab Music Festival

Where: Various venues, Moab (see schedule below)

When: Through Sept. 17

How much: $15 to $25 per concert (package deals available)

Phone: 435-259-7003