The engaging voice of composer Kevin Puts

BSO to play symphony by Peabody Institute's Pulitzer winner

  • BSO music director Marin Alsop (left) with composer Kevin Puts. The BSO will perform a work by the 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner.
BSO music director Marin Alsop (left) with composer Kevin Puts.… (R.R. Jones, Handout photo )
June 02, 2012|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

There are unexpected perks that can come with receiving a Pulitzer Prize, as composer Kevin Puts discovered last Tuesday.

"It was 'Kevin Puts Day' here," he said by phone from his home in Yonkers, N.Y. "There was a nice ceremony with the mayor. I got a plaque. I never had a day named after me."

Puts, a Peabody Institute faculty member since 2006, won the Pulitzer for "Silent Night," an opera about the unauthorized Christmas truce in the midst of World War I, when troops from both sides of the trenches emerged to celebrate Christmas together before the killing resumed.

"Silent Night" was a hit with critics and audiences at its Minnesota Opera premiere in November. That this was Puts' first attempt at opera made the reception, and the prize, all the more remarkable.

Long before the Pulitzer buzz about Puts, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop chose one of his pieces for this week's final program of the season. It marks the third time in a decade that the BSO has featured the composer, whose expertly crafted music speaks in a compelling, natural voice.

Audiences here will get the biggest dose yet of Puts — his Symphony No. 4. This 25-minute score won a 10-minute ovation when it premiered in 2007 at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, Calif., conducted by Alsop, the festival's music director for 20 years.

The symphony was commissioned by a Cabrillo supporter for performance in the historic Mission San Juan Bautista (the exterior provided indelible images in the Alfred Hitchcock classic "Vertigo").

"It's an amazing place, a very reverberant space," Puts said. "I wanted to create a sense of that reverberation with the music. In the first movement, the melodic lines are staggered by a fraction of a beat, like a written-out reverberation. In the Mission, this made the music sound even washier, dreamier. It will be interesting to hear it played in Baltimore in a traditional concert hall."

Within a short time after being established in 1797, San Juan Bautista became known as the "Mission of Music." The missionaries began converting the local Mutsun Indians and teaching (some say forcing) them to learn hymns from Spain; the church choir became renowned.

"I did more research on this than I've ever done for a piece," Puts said. "I was interested in learning more about the Native Americans, the Mutsun people, who had been there before the mission."

With the help of a musicologist, the composer tracked down an early-1800s manuscript that contained some examples of Mutsun melodies transcribed by one of the missionaries.

"I didn't use anything verbatim," Puts said. "I really was prohibited form doing so. Quirina Luna Costillas, who's a descendant of the Mutsuns, told me that Mutsun music was meant to be performed only for specific purposes. Any other usage would be harmful to her people. So I only used melodic shapes and motives that I found in the book."

The second movement of the symphony juxtaposes Mutsun-like themes against fragments of the missionaries' hymns that Puts extracted from the manuscript. "You get a conflict between the two peoples colliding in that movement," he said.

In another section of the symphony, past and present come together. Cabrillo Festival patron Howard Hansen commissioned the work for his wife, Carrie, who was seriously ill at the time. Puts discovered that there was a "healing song" in the Mutsun tradition.

Again, without borrowing an actual melody, he fashioned his own version of a healing song and made it the finale of the symphony "as my tribute to Carrie," Puts said. He makes no claim for his music's restorative powers, but it's worth noting that Carrie's health improved greatly since the symphony's premiere; she and her husband are scheduled to be in the audience in Baltimore this week.

All of this gives audiences vivid entry points to experience Puts' Symphony No. 4. That's how the composer likes it.

"I can feel the audience responding when they know what the music is about," he said. "I found I love to have a program in mind a lot more than having a completely blank canvas. I respond much better if there is a back story to be told, when I have a lot of information to work with. But it is important not to be manipulative. It has to be genuine or it's not worth doing."

The 40-year-old composer started on the path toward making music in his own genuine way at an early age.

"My parents were not professional musicians," said Puts, who was born in Missouri and raised in Michigan. "But they played classical recordings for me, not necessarily to educate me, but because they loved them. I was so deeply attracted to what I heard. Beethoven, Dvorak, Grofe's 'Grand Canyon Suite' — I just loved all of it."

When he was about 7, his grandparents' piano arrived at his home. Puts was on it in a flash.

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