Thursday 22 August 2013

Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Orchestra and Conspirare directed by Craig Hella Johnson give outstanding performances of works by Kevin Puts on a new release from Harmonia Mundi

The American composer, Kevin Puts (b.1972),  studied composition and piano at the Eastman School of Music and Yale University with Samuel Adler, Jacob Druckman, David Lang, Christopher Rouse, Joseph Schwantner, Martin Bresnick, and Nelita True. He later studied at the Tanglewood Music Festival with William Bolcom and Bernard Rands.

Puts was the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his opera, Silent Night and has had works commissioned and performed by leading orchestras, ensembles and soloists throughout North America, Europe and the Far East. His Cello Concerto ‘Vision’, commissioned by the Aspen Music Festival in honour of David Zinman’s 70th Birthday, was premiered by Yo-Yo Ma at the 2006 Aspen Music Festival in Colorado, USA.

In addition to his opera Silent Night, Puts’ impressive list of compositions includes many orchestral works, including four symphonies, nine concerted works, works for wind ensemble, numerous chamber works and solo instrumental works.

After being Associate Professor of Composition at the University of Texas from 1997 to 2005, Kevin Puts now teaches composition at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University and is composer-in-residence at the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.

Harmonia Mundi has just released a recording of works by Kevin Puts with the choir Conspirare directed by Craig Hella Johnson  and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop . This new disc gives a fine overview of Puts’ work and includes his cycle of nine songs To Touch the Sky as well as his Symphony No.4 ‘From Mission San Juan’.

HMU 907580

This new recording opens with a choral setting of a poem by the American poet Fleda Brown , If I were a Swan (2012) that opens most effectively with the choir absolutely superb as they continue in the weaving and blending of Puts’ musical textures in this lovely setting. The rhythmic repeats of texts by the female voices, combined with longer phrases from the rest of the choir, keep an impulse, with the choir moulding the words to great effect. It is Puts’ ability to gauge, exactly, the right tempi, colouring and texture to illuminate the words that makes this such an exquisite setting.

To touch the sky (2012) 9 songs for unaccompanied chorus takes texts by women as diverse as Emily Bronte and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Annunciation (Magnificat) sets verses by Marie Howe where the higher voices of the choir and solo soprano, Mela Dailey , contrast with lower voices in a tense, expectant setting. It is the male voices alone that give a lovely performance of Unbreakable, full of shifting harmonies in this setting of a poem by Mirabai. Mother Teresa of Calcutta is the source for the setting of The Fruit of Silence with repeated wordless rhythmic chanting against the rest of the choir.  Falling Snow, a setting of a poem by Amy Lowell, returns us to a meditative setting where Puts creates a wonderful atmosphere of stillness and cold with such simple yet effective choral means. At the Castle Wood follows in a similar vein with words by Emily Bronte that bring a feeling of winter and despair, becoming slowly richer as the lower voices join and more anguished as it progresses, before ending on a rather sad note. This is a masterly setting of these texts, superbly sung.

At just over one minute Puts delivers another gem, Epitaph, to words by Edna St. Vincent Millay in another perfectly nuanced setting.  Who has seen the Wind is a fast setting of Christina Rossetti, again very short, but very evocative. With my two arms, a setting of Sappho, has Puts weaving the two line text to create far more than the words would be expected to provide. Most noble evergreen brings a lighter uplifting mood where Puts creates an opening full of transparency and sunshine. As the music is enriched by deep basses, we find this to be another beautifully coloured and textured piece creating a feeling of ecstasy that is most appropriate to a text by Hildegard von Bingen. This is another memorable and inspired setting.

To conclude, this cycle returns briefly to the opening Magnificat in the words ‘Magnificat! Even if I don’t see it again’ A lovely touch.

Kevin Puts’ Symphony No. 4 ‘From Mission San Juan’ (2007) was commissioned by the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music  and premiered by the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop in 2007.

Puts was commissioned to write a symphony inspired by the Mission at San Juan Bautista that nestles in the heart of the San Juan Valley between the Gabilan Mountains and Flint Hills and is the location for a concert each year. The founding friars baptised thousands of Mutsun Indians and taught them to sing church music. Working with Victoria Levine, a specialist in Native American music at the University of Colorado, Puts distilled the essence of San Juan Bautista into his fourth symphony.

The first movement, Prelude: Mission Sanguan Bautista, circa 1800, opens quietly with a simple motif that slowly moves around before the woodwind join in a plangent melody with the orchestra weaving around, quite freely tonal. The orchestra develops this motif, with string sounds becoming occasionally more dramatic. A clarinet leads to the hushed coda, ending a calm and atmospheric movement that, nevertheless, has an underlying passion.

Arriquetpon (Diary of Francisco Arroyo de la Cuesta, 1818) is a kind of scherzo where the trio section doesn’t quite surface. Woodwind give a native American feel to the music in the opening and, as the movement develops, the rhythms continue to give an ethnic feel before the strings herald a longer breathed melody that is not allowed to develop. The faster music returns, now swirling and becoming louder before, again, the longer breathed melody tries to intervene against swirling woodwind but slowly fades. A slower version of the fast rhythmic music commences, eventually building in tempo and volume in the most dramatic music so far, with drums strokes as the music reaches a peak. It subsides before the opening theme on woodwind returns. The music slowly quietens to end on a drum stroke.

Interlude opens slowly on strings before woodwind join in, alternating with strings which slowly become richer and fuller, moving the music forwards. The woodwind return as the strings and the rest of the orchestra become slightly hesitant and more dramatic, pulling in some of the native American sounds of the second movement. The music rises up dramatically to a peak as though two worlds are colliding but drops back to quieter music with woodwind, bells and mysterious orchestral sounds before running into  the finale, Healing Song , where a plaintive little tune appears, melancholy and reflective, still with an ethnic feel. The orchestra joins more fully in the most beautiful of themes, still full of native American flavour, that slowly rises up and combines with a counter melody. This is glorious melody, beautifully controlled and built by Alsop and the Baltimore Orchestra. Native American sounds return as the orchestra falls away before rising to a conclusive end.

Puts has an ability to shape colour and mould his material to create just the right atmosphere and feeling. Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Orchestra give an outstanding performance of this fine symphony.

With such fine performances, a first rate recording, excellent notes and full texts and translations this is a terrific new release from Harmonia Mundi. I should also make a special mention of the quality of the booklet production with numerous illustrations that are appropriate to the printed texts.

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