kevin puts

Claiming culture, marketing emotion

Oregon Mozart Players concert explores new worlds with music by living composers—and raises questions of preparation and appropriated meaning

By DANIEL HEILA

Beall Hall at the University of Oregon School of Music was almost at capacity on October 12th for the Oregon Mozart PlayersNew Worlds concert–the first of three 2019-2020 season concerts featuring contemporary classical compositions. The progressive program and the exciting young guest artists–Eugene’s Delgani String Quartet–promised a compelling listening experience. Two works by American composers under the age of 50 were the program’s highlights: Teen Murti by Reena Esmail and How Wild the Sea by Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Puts.

Oregon Music Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene's Beall Hall. Photo by Torrin Riley.
Oregon Mozart Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene’s Beall Hall. Photo by Torrin Riley.

Both pieces featured non-Eurocentric themes, and Esmail’s piece was crafted using materials of a nonwestern musical tradition: the Hindustani music of Northern India. Esmail is Indian-American and has completed significant studies of Hindustani music in India (Fulbright-Nehru scholarship), and brings that pedigree to her writing. For his part, Puts (whose opera Silent Night won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for music) drew inspiration for his string quartet concerto from tragic media images of Japanese victims of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.

The two works were masterfully crafted, rewarding attentive listeners with multi-textured soundscapes, harmonic excursions into unfamiliar territory, and bravura ensemble and solo passages that highlighted the virtuosity of both the ensemble and the guest artists. So it was with a sinking heart–just a few bars into Esmail’s sensitive treatment of Hindustani music–that I realized the Oregon Mozart Players had bitten off more than they could chew with Teen Murti.

The piece opened with layered melismatic lines over a drone: a quintessential Indian music structure. The texture was thick with “blue” notes (microtones achieved by fingering a touch higher or lower on the neck and via glissandi) and meaty low-register trills in the first violins. My ears were primed. But then there was a spate of stuttering pizzicato. The string players were hesitant, not wanting to be the one to plink out of place, thereby rendering their entrance scattershot. A growing sense of ill ease permeated the performance from that point on, the players struggling to get through the piece without a train wreck.

In an effective, coloristic section of ad lib, portamento-laden phrases in the violins held aloft what could have been a languid, sensuous cello obligato from within the orchestral section. Unfortunately, the cellist was so focused on the page that her performance was lackluster. To be fair, rehearsal time is at a premium even for the more regularly programmed works from the classical canon, let alone unfamiliar new works that may present challenges the ensemble has not faced before. 

The ensemble continued their unsteady way through the lovely piece, doing their best to execute the freely metered, elastic rhythms. A final return to the opening liquid microtone textures brought the structure to a satisfying conclusion, capped off with an inspired melismatic solo statement from concertmaster Alice Blankenship. The piece had desperately needed that kind of emotional commitment from the beginning.

This is music that goes against the grain of western music in so many ways, and to ask an ensemble that specializes in the most western of western music to embrace it was perhaps poor judgement. It is hard to see an ensemble struggle, especially one with such high standards. But salt was rubbed into the wound when artistic director/conductor Kelly Kuo made awkward excuses for the subpar performance, mentioning the challenging rhythmical elements. Perhaps it would have been better to sing the praises of the work and move on to the next piece instead of acknowledging the weakness of the performance.

Oregon Music Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene's Beall Hall. Photo by Torrin Riley.
Oregon Mozart Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene’s Beall Hall. Photo by Torrin Riley.

Processing tragedy

On his well-crafted website, Kevin Puts writes about having written music associated with tragedy: “It seems I am always making memorials, or trying to process tragedy through my writing.” Often these works are inspired by images the composer has seen. Falling Dream: a couple leaping together from one of the burning towers during the 9/11 attacks. His Clarinet Concerto: images from a documentary of families mourning at the graves of fallen soldiers of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The impetus for How Wild the Sea was televised imagery of an elderly man, trapped on the roof of his home, being swept along on the violent Tōhoku tsunami tide, having just lost his wife to the tumult.

Delgani Quartet opened the piece, with a gentle to-and-fro motion of arpeggios and running scales that evoked an undulating sea, consonant intervals projecting a deceptive benevolence. After an abrupt shift to dissonance, the to-and-froing morphed into an ominous swelling and contracting as the orchestra washed over the solo ensemble. This morass of portent gradually coalesced into a clearly metered rhythmic section that highlighted declamatory, unison orchestral statements.

The concerto continued in this manner, exploiting the protagonist role of the quartet against the “forces of nature” portrayed in the orchestra. Puts’s brilliant orchestration had the quartet sending phrases off into the brass and percussion sections, creating motivic currents which gave the work tremendous sonic depth. Despite the predictable tolling chimes and woodwind intonation issues, OMP delivered a much more energetic performance than with Esmail’s work, including an outstanding contribution by the french horn section.

Puts’s treatment of the quartet as a single voice–shared rhythmic and melodic material activated, agitated, and modulated from within by the separate instruments–created a powerful counter to the orchestra’s aural dominance. Delgani was in their element, their tight ensemble rapport executing dense contrapuntal and rapid scalar sections with enthusiastic synergy.

A return to the oceanic textures of the opening–this time the underlying anxiety retreating in dark brass reverberations–signaled the conclusion of the work. A few errant currents of phrases and motifs passed between sections, and a tic-toc brass-and-percussion figure guided the orchestra to a textural cadence and a unison solo statement by the quartet: a spine tingling conclusion that was unfortunately marred by two full orchestra hits that seemed counterintuitive and awkwardly self-conscious.

Creative impetus, or mere marketing?

I feel compelled, in today’s atmosphere of transparency of intent and growing respect for difference (cultural, sexual, religious or otherwise), to mention a criticism I have for Puts’s work. With regard to the two previously mentioned tragedy-inspired works (Falling Dream, Clarinet Concerto), I understand the impetus. These are issues close to home, events that affected and continue to affect Americans viscerally. But I have observed a tendency (especially in more conservative contemporary classical communities) for composers to jump at monumental events as impetus for composition. I feel that this practice can be a minefield of unintended effrontery to victims of these tragedies or members of the cultures that have been afflicted, especially if the events happened at a significant distance to the composer’s life, lifestyle, and culture. 

So, I wonder about the respectfulness of writing pieces inspired by a kind of media-driven voyeurism. I can understand using the Japanese tragedy as impetus if the composer had a direct connection to the Japanese disaster; Puts did have a piece performed in a Japanese town damaged by an earthquake in the 90s, but that seems a distant relationship to the Tōhoku earthquake. Simply appropriating the meaning in a Japanese man’s suffering without any deliberate, respectful reference to his culture seems a particularly good example of cultural hubris. How Wild the Sea used no elements of Japan’s rich musical culture, historical or contemporary. I can imagine there were many touch points for creativity in the aftermath of the disaster: favorite community songs and folksongs of the region, to name just two. Why were these not explored?

Remove the program note’s mention of the impetus and the composer’s explanation on his website, and the piece bears no connection to Japanese culture. So why just a textual reference to a tragedy that captured the world’s attention? Could this be marketing? Is this a composer seeding his work with imagery to engage the morbid fascination and pity the observer feels for the suffering? I certainly hope not. But, I feel that there just wasn’t enough relevant content in How Wild the Sea to comfortably support the composer’s decision to apply the tragic imagery of a doomed man’s suffering to his music.

Oregon Music Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene's Beall Hall. Photo by Clarissa Parker.
Oregon Mozart Players performed Reena Esmail and Kevin Puts, October 2019 in Eugene’s Beall Hall. Photo by Clarissa Parker.

The Oregon Mozart Players are to be commended for their programming of living American composers. They are participating in a rising tide of performing organizations discovering the amazing variety, accessibility, and artistry of American contemporary classical music. Perhaps they might find a more copacetic rapport with the more pulse-oriented pieces of the minimalists (Philip Glass’ symphonies, for instance) and post-minimalists (John Adams’s lighter orchestral works) or the abstracted tonality of the current roster of young Brooklynites (Andrew Norman, Missy Mazzoli).

However the orchestra’s programming develops, Oregon Mozart Players have established themselves as committed champions of contemporary classical music, willing to take risks and create memorable music of our time.

Oregon Mozart Players will feature music of Frederik Magle on December 6 and 7 and of Michael Torke on March 28, 2020.

Daniel Heila writes music, loves words, and plays flute in Eugene, OR.

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MusicWatch Weekly: A wider net

In which we stumble upon a Hall of Fame inductee, learn about joiking and konnakol, and hear from the audients

There’s so much going on this month that I’m going to refer you to our monthly column, cast a wider net, and focus on telling you about different concerts, music that flies under the radar or comes up at the last minute. But you still deserve to hear about more than just what I can tell you about. The delicate imbalance of mental variance my Muse demands of me requires a certain amount of rest and risotto, and if I went out and did all the things you hear about here I’d soon be reduced to a burbling mess of incoherence.

So I’ve been sending my team of loyal brigands around town, collecting intelligence for me and turning in hot takes like Odin’s snoopy ravens. Call em the Rose City Irregulars. In a moment, you’ll hear about symphonic Batman, choral Oliveros, and Third Angle. But first, a digression.

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Oregon Symphony: reaching for the stars

Orchestra's season-opening concerts range from 'Star Wars' to 'Star Trek' to a classical music superstar

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

The Oregon Symphony Orchestra started its season in September with two of the more unusual, less typically classical types of concerts it regularly produces. The first was part of the film-with-live-score series, always among the OSO’s most popular concerts; the second was an evening of overtures and songs and a favorite recurring guest star. The movie was Star Wars, the first and original (retitled A New Hope when the Empire Struck Back). The special guest was superstar soprano Renée Fleming, premiering a new song cycle by Kevin Puts and singing hits from her classical, cinematic, and Broadway catalogs (told you she’s a superstar).

The Oregon Symphony performed the score to ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ while the film played.

In both concerts at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, the OSO came out swinging for the fences, sounding sharper than I’ve ever heard it. And this weekend, the orchestra continues its live film score performances with that other long-running science fiction film franchise. More on that below.

Star Wars

It’s fitting that symphony orchestras have been saving themselves from oblivion by performing film scores by composers like John Williams, who is generally credited with reviving and saving the orchestral tradition in film music. Watching any movie, in a concert hall instead of a movie theater (or living room), with living and breathing musicians performing the score in person like any other symphony, is always multiple different experiences: concert performance as much as movie screening. When it’s Star Wars, you’re bumping elbows with a couple thousand other Star Wars fans, listening to supremely iconic music which is possibly more important than the film itself; these fans love this movie and its soundtrack as much as your average concert-goer loves Brahms and Beethoven, and the excitement in the Schnitz that night was, ahem, a palpable Force.

A film is a smorgasbord of varied art forms. To watch a movie is a plurality of experiences, driven by narrative and character like theater and literature, photographed and edited into an illusory farrago of moving pictures, decorated with an assortment of audio and visual effects, and given life with some sort of musical score. When opera first became a thing back in the 1600s, it got its name—which simply means “works”—from the way it combined music with other existing arts like poetry, dance, acting, and stagecrafty stuff like set design and costuming (not to mention the mechanical dragons, flying stages, and now the various multidisciplinary effects the 21st century has birthed). Now that film has supplanted opera as the most perfect art form (#sorrynotsorry), it’s only appropriate that one of the greatest would turn out to be the space opera Star Wars.

Norman Huynh is the OSO’s Associate Conductor. Photo: Richard Kolbell.

Star Wars itself is a plurality of experiences: it’s a fairy tale and a hero’s quest (several of them, in fact); it’s a gritty 1970s-style “used future” sci-fi picture, part of a lineage that stretches from 2001 to Moon; it’s a miracle of independent filmmaking, simultaneously a myth-making blockbuster and the work of an idiosyncratic auteur in love with documentaries and samurai movies; it was the first movie a lot of us fell in love with, and after 40 years and however many sequels/ prequels/ books/ games/ cartoons the first one remains the best (second best if you count Empire, but that’s an argument for beers and joints; fight me later).

Williams’s score adds to this all this rich profusion, and not just because it’s so damn good or because it marries that gritty realism to all the lofty, heroic, transcendent, mythological, Romantic ideals which are the film’s heart.

Huynh’s conductor’s score for ‘Star Wars.’

Williams is one of the Great Composers, with every right to steal from Stravinsky, Holst, and Bartók (as those composers in turn stole from Debussy, Wagner, et alia), and that makes him part of the same time-honored tradition as the rest of OSO’s normal repertoire (any ass can hear that). Raise the screen and I could believe this was just another symphonic poem, an evening-length concerto for orchestra by one of America’s most successful living composers. It’s funny, in a sad sort of way, that Williams generally doesn’t show up on “greatest American composer” lists like this one

All of this made it a distinct thrill to hear Star Wars performed on September 9 by the same orchestra we last heard playing Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. Although Williams’s score is customarily connected to the classical world with the formula “Wagner via Holst and Korngold,” the composers I hear the most in this music all showed up on OSO concerts last season.

• The tribal-mechanical percussion, the menacingly heraldic brass, the creeping weirdness of the low woodwinds: all are features of OSO’s old friend The Rite of Spring, and performed with the same sense of familiar immediacy.

• The mythological, melancholy strains of that immortal Force theme, the rebellious sentimentality of Princess Leia’s theme, the grand sweeping gestures and the heroic fanfares and the quiet intimate moments: all played with the deep spiritual sincerity the orchestra invariably brings to Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Brahms.

• And when Williams’s score gets sciencefictional, it does so by operating in the complex 20th-century sound world the OSO already knows so well from Bartók, Schoenberg, Hindemith, Prokofiev, and Messiaen.

Renée Fleming

In its September 23rd opening concert, the OSO came out in fine form, starting the show with a bit of Richard Strauss (the tone poem Don Juan), the horns sounding especially wonderful, Teutonic trombones muscular and rotund, principal oboist Martin Hébert dazzling on his solo.

Renée Fleming came out in a glorious fuchsia Vera Wang gown and talked a bit about Letters from Georgia, a song cycle written for her by Pulitzer-winning composer Kevin Puts. Fleming recounted the work’s inception in the letters between Georgia O’Keeffe and her husband Alfred Stieglitz which Puts used as a libretto, calling them “very steamy, very powerful.”

Puts won his Pulitzer for his first opera, and operatic sensibilities shine all through Letters from Georgia. Right out the gate the orchestra plays a series of huge post-tonal sonorities, a big full modern symphonic sound, the world of Adès, Britten, Davies, Henze, Higdon; by contrast, most of the vocal passages were supported by clear instrumental textures, leaving space for the all-important melodies, giving Fleming’s voice and O’Keeffe’s words room to breathe. Huge moments would give way suddenly to very small passages: a tender duet between clarinetists James Shields and Todd Kuhns (the fourth song, “Friends”); a 4-mallet vibraphone solo from Niel DePonte (the closing song, “Canyon,” which was certainly the best of the five); a series of solo violin passages for concertmaster Sarah Kwak (including a comically gnarly bit of devilish fiddling during the second song, “Violin”). Throughout it all Fleming played the superstar, one voice against a hundred instruments, her performance alternately vulnerable and assertive, always beautiful and evocative, bold and individualistic but subservient to the text, the story, the music.

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MusicWatch Weekly: centennial celebration

Symphonic tributes to composer/conductor/crossover king Leonard Bernstein and other American sounds highlight this week's Oregon music scene

Has any musician ever had a year like Leonard Bernstein did between November 1943 and December 1944? The 25-year-old wunderkind won national fame for fill-in conducting the New York Philharmonic on short notice in a nationally broadcast concert from Carnegie Hall, conducted the premiere of his first symphony and the recording of his scintillating first ballet, Fancy Free (which the New York City Ballet premiered that year and which Eugene Symphony performs in November), wrote a hit for Billie Holiday, and saw his first musical open on Broadway. Whew!

That debut musical, On the Town, is best known for “New York, New York, a hell of a town,” but the rest of the score sparkles just as brightly. On Thursday at Eugene’s Hult Center, its dance episodes open Eugene Symphony’s season-long celebration of Bernstein’s centenary, which orchestras and ensembles throughout Oregon and the world are also honoring this year.

Leonard Bernstein

The rest of the program is equally compelling. Shostakovich’s magnificent fifth symphony was a Bernstein fave he did much to popularize in the West, and Lenny recorded Ernest Bloch’s popular cello concerto Schelomo (King Solomon) twice. The Swiss-born composer wrote his “Hebraic rhapsody” in 1916, just before he moved to the US (where it premiered), long before he settled in Agate Beach in 1941. (He died in Portland in 1959.) Soloist Julie Albers stars.

The Vancouver Symphony’s opening concerts Saturday and Sunday at Skyview Concert Hall also laud Lenny with excerpts from his great stage scores Candide and West Side Story. Tchaikovsky Competition gold medalist Mayuko Kamio stars in another American masterwork, Samuel Barber’s vibrant Violin Concerto. The show opens with a low-blowing new piece the orchestra commendably commissioned from a local composer: one of its bassoonists, Nicole Buetti.

Inon Barnatan performs with the Oregon Symphony

This weekend’s Oregon Symphony concerts at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall feature the world premiere of 27-year-old Katherine Balch’s whispery Chamber Music, which deploys a variety of percussion instruments along with the usual strings and winds to create, she says, “a very intimate, intricate music intended for close listening and made among friends.” One of Joseph Haydn’s popular “Paris” symphonies, nicknamed “The Hen” because of some clucked-up first movement violins, offers another chance to hear the orchestra excel in the magnificent music of a composer whose symphonies have become one of its specialities. Aaron Copland’s Jazz Age Piano Concerto followed Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Piano Concerto into then-sketchy (for symphony orchestras) jazzy territory. Nearly a century later, it sounds like a lot of fun, and a sleek vehicle for excellent Israeli-born pianist Inon Barnatan before the concert arrives at its final destination: Brahms’s mighty fourth symphony.

A highlight of last week’s OSO concerts was a new work by one of America’s most appealing living composers, Kevin Puts. His Beethovenian 2007 Trio-Sinfonia highlights Saturday’s Chamber Music @ Beall performance by the excellent Eroica Trio at the University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall. They’ll also play Bach’s famous “Chaconne” from Partita in d Minor; the equally famous Adagio in g minor by 20th-century musicologist Remo Giazotto still infuriatingly and falsely attributed to Tomaso Albinoni by record companies, program writers and classical music announcers who should know better by now, and Mendelssohn’s c minor Trio.

Earlier that day and not far away, at their free show at Eugene’s Hope Abbey Mausoleum, Ensemble Primo Seicento (three singers and historically informed instrumentalists on harpsichord, viola da gamba, and cornetto) sings and plays music by Sigismondo D’India, Legrenzi, Sances, Riccio, Benedetti, Barbarino, Corradini, Merula, Hume, Cima and of course Monteverdi himself.

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