KEVIN PUTS: If I Were a Swan; To Touch the Sky; Symphony No.4, “From Mission San Juan” – Conspirare/Craig Hella Johnson, dir.,/Baltimore Sym. Orch./Marin Alsop – Harmonia mundi

by | Aug 9, 2013 | Classical CD Reviews

KEVIN PUTS: If I Were a Swan; To Touch the Sky; Symphony No.4, “From Mission San Juan” – Conspirare/Craig Hella Johnson, dir.,/Baltimore Sym. Orch./Marin Alsop – Harmonia mundi HMU907580 (9/10/13), 59:42 ****:

I refer to Kevin Puts as a “break-through” composer because it is my opinion that he will soon be a household name in American music; someone whose name and reputation will be one of standard recognition for the next few decades as John Adams, Philip Glass and John Corigliano (for example) were throughout the ‘70s and into the present. Puts’ “break-through” work may be his Pulitzer Prize winning opera from 2012, Silent Night; a truly amazing and moving work that I hope will come out as a video release soon. I first became aware of Puts with his highly engaging Clarinet Concerto, written for the Colorado Symphony in 2009.

This disc represents just three of the reasons why you should definitely get to know the emotional, compelling and relevant music of Kevin Puts. If we use the two choral works herein as benchmarks for his vocal writing it is easy to predict that his World War I intimate drama, Silent Night, would be the brilliant work that it is. The opening If I Were a Swan takes its title from one of the poems by Fleda Brown, who is also the composer’s aunt. Originally part of the larger cycle, To Touch the Sky, the swan work is a beautiful depiction in words and music of the glory and artistry of flight.

To Touch the Sky was written specifically on request for à capella ensemble Conspirare and their director Craig Hella Johnson. The premise for this wonderful choral cycle is that all the texts are from writings by women and the work revolves around the mystic concept of the “divine feminine”; as first epitomized by the Biblical Magnificat and the writings of the twelfth century composer and mystic Hildegard of Bingen. The authors represented are (in order) Marie Howe, Mirabai, Mother Teresa, Amy Lowell, Emily Bronte, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Christina Georgina Rosetti, Sappho and Hildegard von Bingen. I cannot speak highly enough about this work. I truly love the sound of crystalline choral music, written superbly, with picturesque and meaningful texts, sung beautifully. That just about sums up To Touch the Sky. Certainly there is a feminine perspective to the texts and a generally soft, lovely, caressing quality to the vocal lines that Puts has assembled but it would be a mistake to view this work as a “feminist” song cycle of any sort. It is simply and undeniably beautiful and Conspirare is a stunning ensemble that performs with flawless diction, intonation and balance.

The Symphony No.4, “From Mission San Juan” is so subtitled because it was commissioned by the annual Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music to be performed at Mission San Juan Bautista; a really attractive historic site and one of the better-maintained California Spanish missions on El Camino Real. The work is in a standard four movement form and takes a lot of its inspiration from the folk songs of the indigenous Mutsun people who lived there two hundred years ago. The rhythmic patterns, especially in the spritely second movement, paint a vivid tale but Puts also was inspired by the uneasy mix of the Christian friars’ traditional hymnody which history does not dispute was forced upon the native people and their own style of singing. The use of some hymn-like material in the third movement is both tranquil as well as in a bit of unease until the “forces” that once made up San Juan are coalesced in the grand closing sections of the symphony. This is a really fine work with great attraction for the audience and the programmatic connotations do not tell a story so much as set a mood.

As I mentioned, I really believe Kevin Puts is a fine, talented composer; trained at the Eastman School as well as at Yale. There is no doubt that his work will be heard with increasing frequency and he will be one of the country’s “name” composers into the 21st century. Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony perform wonderfully here, in their first recording for Harmonia mundi. The sound quality is excellent too and I strongly recommend this collection to anyone.

—Daniel Coombs

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