Composer Puts can see himself in ‘Vision’
Kevin Puts has had works commissioned by the National Symphony, the St. Louis Symphony, the American Composers Orchestra and others, a track record that places him comfortably in the ranks of America’s most significant young composers. Still, at 34, Puts believes that only with his most recent works is his musical voice beginning to take shape.”As a composer, when you’re young, you don’t have a voice,” said Puts, sitting outside the Benedict Music Tent, where his latest and most high-profile work, a cello concerto for Yo-Yo Ma, will have its world premiere Sunday, June 25, with the Aspen Festival Orchestra. “Every piece is new. You write a piece and say, ‘Maybe that wasn’t me; maybe I’ll try something else.’ With every piece you have to consider who you are.”Puts doesn’t have a taste for writing programmatic music, music with a specific narrative. “I’m not going to write about unity between the races, or a mountaintop. I don’t connect those things to music,” he said. Still, it’s hard not to relate his recent artistic solidification with the inspiration behind his latest piece.The cello concerto – commissioned by the Aspen Music Festival in honor of music director David Zinman’s 70th birthday, and to be conducted by Zinman – is titled “Vision.” The piece is built on the idea of musical dissonance and chaos gradually giving way to something more unified and pretty.
“For some reason, I’ve always had this idea of writing a one-movement work in which the protagonist, the cellist here, is trying to find his way through a fog,” said Puts, who considered titling the piece, “Fog.” “Trying to find some transcendence, a vision, a clarity. Rather than some struggle through a crisis, it’s about shedding through layers of ambiguity, to find a vision. You don’t feel that clarity till the end.”The concerto is built on triads, units of three notes. The early part of the piece uses a multitude of unrelated triads; the effect, said Puts, “is not ugliness. But it is dissonance. You don’t know where the focus is. There are all levels of harmonic ambiguity, using the triads as a building block. Meanwhile, Yo-Yo plays melody through these dense harmonies.”Near the end, the dissonance moves toward simplicity, as the complex triads resolve in a clean-sounding D major chord. “It’s gradually paring things down, to find something clear and unmistakable.”Though there is no literal story to “Vision” – at least not that its composer is conscious of – Puts intended the piece to have narrative. Puts calls it “a musical journey; it feels like a story.” He can point to at least one extra-musical event that inspired him: While he was composing the concerto, his mother was recovering from the removal of a brain tumor.”She lived in this hallucinatory world, not completely there,” said Puts, who had a chamber piece, “And Legions Will Rise,” for clarinet, violin and marimba, performed in Aspen last summer. “I was inspired by watching her come back to the surface. I started thinking of some of the music in this piece as hallucinatory.”The other figure who influenced “Vision” was, of course, Yo-Yo Ma. Even Puts seems a bit starstruck by the cellist, noting that this is by far the most high-profile premiere of his career, thanks to the presence of Ma. It is Ma’s first orchestral performance in Aspen in more than a decade, causing a noticeable demand for tickets. Puts said he injected elements into the concerto intended to satisfy listeners’ expectations.”There are definitely virtuosic moments in the piece, dazzling shows of virtuosity,” he said. “I, like everyone else, know his playing, so I’d know how he’d sound, how he’d look. It was easy to picture that beauty of sound he’s known for. They want to hear him play beautifully, not abstractly, not weirdly. I gave it to him, because I don’t want people to be disappointed.
“But also, my music has gotten more lyrical, especially as I write more for string instruments. I sing what I write, rather than play it on piano.”It was piano, not voice – and his mother, not Yo-Yo Ma – that got Puts started musically. In the family’s house, first in St. Louis, then in the small Michigan town of Alma, that Puts began imitating what his mother played on piano. But he seemed uncommonly self-determined, preferring to play film scores – especially those by John Williams – to the piano lessons he started at 8. Even better than the “Superman” and “Star Wars” themes was making up his own music, however. “I didn’t have the patience on piano, these dumb little exercises. I wanted big, orchestral sounds,” said Puts, who does, indeed, compose mostly orchestral works.As an undergraduate at the Eastman School of Music, Puts turned back toward piano, but his studies at Yale, for his master’s, and back at Eastman, for his doctorate, were in composition. It was doing his doctoral dissertation, his Symphony No. 1, while studying with Aspen Music Festival composer-in-residence Christopher Rouse, that Puts started honing his own vision.”I started on the right path with my Symphony No. 1,” he said. Rouse “encouraged me to explore a broader musical world. I was imitating minimalist composers: Steve Reich, John Adams. That piece was a big breakthrough for me. It led to the types of pieces I’m writing today, with more variety, and more emotionally impactful.”Puts spent six years as a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He recently gave up the job, and moved to New York City, to pursue composing full time. After six years teaching, he recognizes not only how hard it is to find a musical identity, but also how hard it is to get that voice heard.”Teaching can be incredibly depressing,” he said. “As a composer, you can’t just sail through. You really have to go for it. You have to go outside of school, even when you’re in school. It’s not like the world comes after you. The Philadelphia Orchestra doesn’t say, ‘Oh, he’s graduated. Let’s get him.'”
Following Puts’ “Vision” concerto on Sunday’s program is another season highlight, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, the “Leningrad” Symphony. Composed during the 1941 siege of the city, the piece – particularly the “Invasion” theme from the first movement – is as direct a description as possible of the savagery of war. Another of Shostakovich’s “War” symphonies, the Eighth Symphony, is scheduled for the Aug. 6 Aspen Festival Orchestra concert, with James Conlon conducting. Shostakovich will make numerous additional appearances in this centennial year of his birth. The Emerson String Quartet, which recorded the composer’s complete quartet cycle in Harris Hall through the ’90s, returns with an all-Shostakovich program July 11.Center stage this week is pianist Orli Shaham. She gives a master class Tuesday, June 27; performs in an all-Brahms special event featuring her brother, violinist Gil Shaham, on Wednesday, June 28; and appears along with Sen. John McCain and students of the Aspen Music School on Saturday, July 1, in the special event, An Evening of Words and Music. And expect Shaham to stick around for the Sunday, July 2, Aspen Festival Orchestra concert: Her husband, David Robertson, conducts the concert, which features works by Prokofiev, Brahms and Marc-André Dalbavie, a composer-in-residence in Aspen this summer. There’s a lot of history here; Shaham spent the summers of her childhood in Aspen, where her late father was associated with the Aspen Center for Physics. And she and Robertson announced their engagement several years ago from the Music Festival stage.Also this week: A Sinfonia concert Wednesday, June 28, features conductor Michael Stern and violinist Jinjoo Cho, performing works by Shostakovich and Sibelius. Conductor Joseph Silverstein and pianist Ann Schein appear with the Aspen Concert Orchestra Thursday, June 29, in a program of Beethoven, Brahms and Rachmaninoff. Jeffrey Kahane, new music director of the Colorado Symphony, makes his Aspen debut, as conductor and pianist, with the Aspen Chamber Symphony, Friday, June 30, performing a Mozart piano concerto, a Haydn symphony and a work by Ginastera. The Colorado-based Takács Quartet plays a recital Saturday, July 1, with a program topped by Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet, plus works by Mozart and Britten.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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