The American composer, Kevin Puts, who hails from St. Louis, Missouri, is clearly making something of a name for himself, especially in the USA. Several of his works have been recorded and his first opera, Silent Night
(2011), won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012. He’s currently teaching at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. He studied at the Eastman School of Music and at Yale University. I was a little surprised that his website
biography doesn’t appear to mention any of his teachers but my understanding is that these have included Jacob Druckman, Christopher Rouse and Joseph Schwantner.
Puts has worked quite a bit in Texas. He taught composition at the University of Texas at Austin (1999-2005) and he has been at some time the composer-in-residence with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. I presume it was during his time in Austin that he first encountered Craig Hella Johnson and his choir, Conspirare. They are the co-commissioners of To Touch the Sky
. I infer from the notes that when selecting texts for this set of choral songs Puts enlisted the help of his aunt, the poet, Fleda Brown
(b. 1944). It seems that If I Were a Swan
, which is a setting of one of her poems, was originally intended to form part of To Touch the Sky
but that Puts decided eventually that it worked better as a free-standing piece. Whether it would have fitted into the larger composition I can’t say but it certainly works as an attractive piece in its own right. The music is aptly described in the notes as “a feather-light paean”; the textures are light and airy and Conspirare sing it beautifully.
I previously encountered this choir through a very fine disc of music by Samuel Barber (review
). I found their singing on that occasion to be exemplary and that’s the case again on this disc. To Touch the Sky
grew out of a conversation between Kevin Puts and Craig Hella Johnson about the notion of the ‘divine feminine’. However, the resulting sequence of songs is not dominated by religious poetry, still less is it a feminist tract though all the selected poets were female. The opening song, ‘Annunciation’ does have a religious link, as the title implies: some words from the Magnificat are interwoven with a poem by Mary Howe (b. 1950). No doubt suggesting the character of Mary, there is a prominent soprano solo, taken by a member of the choir. Her singing and that of her colleagues is very good though words are not always distinct.
I like the imaginative setting of some lines by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, ‘The Fruit of Silence’. The notes refer to her words resonating “against an otherwise prattling world”; the prattling is well suggested by fast, wordless rhythmic patterns against which we hear Mother Theresa’s words sung in serene, long musical lines. The sixth song, ‘At Castle Wood’, sets lines by Emily Brontë. This is one of the longest pieces in the collection. It’s a fine composition, featuring some beautiful homophonic choral writing and some affecting harmonies. The collection also includes a very brief yet imaginative setting of Rossetti’s ‘Who has seen the wind?’ and despite the overall feminine inspiration two settings are for male voices only. The final piece returns us to the divine with a setting of words by Hildegard of Bingen. This, the most extended piece, entitled ‘Most noble evergreen’, gradually grows in ecstasy until eventually there is a reprise of some of the music heard at the outset of the whole set.
To Touch the Sky
contains some effective and imaginative choral writing and the collection is splendidly sung by Conspirare.
The Fourth Symphony owes its genesis to Puts’ connections with the annual Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music
of which Marin Alsop has been Music Director since 1992. The festival, which is now based around Santa Cruz, California, celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2012 and boasts a whole string of world and US première performances: this Puts symphony was first heard there in 2007 under Marin Alsop’s direction. Every year one of the festival venues is the church of Old Mission San Juan Bautista
, founded in 1797 and to this day an active Catholic church. The symphony was commissioned by Howard Hansen, a long-time supporter of the Festival in general and of the concerts at the Old Mission in particular. The composer writes in the booklet that San Juan Bautista “has been called ‘the Mission of Music’ [due to]… the musical predispositions of some of its founding fathers who baptised thousands of Mutsun Indians and took it upon themselves to teach them to sing church music.” According to the notes by Gavin Plumley, Puts has explored the music of Native Americans and has “distilled the musical DNA of San Juan Bautista” into his symphony. Given the scheme of the symphony I suppose it could be said that the work explores some of the tension between the Native American music - and culture - and that of the Christian religion.
The work is in four movements which play without a break. The scoring includes pretty standard wind (184.108.40.206) and brass (220.127.116.11) as well as strings and harp but there’s a large percussion section, requiring three players plus timpani. To be honest, I’m not sure how much symphonic development goes on in this work - to me it seems more like a descriptive tone poem in four sections - but it’s a colourful and attractive score. Each movement has a title. The first, ‘Prelude: Mission San Juan Bautista ca. 1800’, is mainly tranquil and measured. We are told the music was inspired by the acoustic of the mission church. The second movement is entitled ‘Arriquetpon [diary of Francisco Arroyo da la Cuesta, 1818]’. Here, we are told, the music of the Indians meets the calm of the mission church. The primary material is a perky, irresistibly dancing tune, mainly heard on reedy woodwinds and clearly derived from traditional American music. It’s an engaging movement. The third movement, ‘Interlude’, begins with slow music on strings and wind, which apparently relates to the traditional church music. Eventually there is a sustained and, frankly, rather overblown climax; perhaps this suggests the conflict between the two musical cultures. The climax subsides and the quiet ending eases into the finale, ‘Healing Song’. This is a lyrical movement which seems to me to speak of reconciliation and harmony. Frankly, I think Gavin Plumley overstates his case massively in describing this section as music of “nigh-Mahlerian intensity”. I hear American openness and optimism in this music.
The symphony is colourful and in it Kevin Puts displays a confident ability to write resourcefully for the orchestra. It’s attractive music without being particularly deep. The performance is spirited and committed and though it’s a live performance the audience is completely unobtrusive: there’s no applause at the end.
The recorded sound both for the choral items and the symphony is very good. The booklet is beautifully produced, as is usually the case with this label. Gavin Plumley’s notes are useful up to a point though I don’t think he provides sufficient information about or comment on the symphony: for example, I should have liked to know why the second movement bears the title it does and what connection that has with the music we hear but the note is completely silent on that point.
This is attractive, accessible music in first rate performances. Kevin Puts has been well served by this disc.