Harmonia Mundi Releases Three World Premieres by Composer Kevin Puts
Craig Hella Johnson and Conspirare perform To Touch the Sky and If I Were a Swan paired with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Marin Alsop performing Symphony No.4 "From Mission San Juan."
In 2012 harmonia mundi recorded two live concerts of three world premieres by the young American composer Kevin Puts and has gathered them in a new album featuring the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Austin-based choir Conspirare.
Conspirare's performances of To Touch the Sky and If I Were a Swan begin the program. A co-commission with the Thelma Hunter Fund of the American Composers Forum, To Touch the Sky (Nine Songs for Unaccompanied Chorus on Texts by Women) is an exquisite piece based on texts by female poets, writers and mystics from across the centuries, including the contemporary American poet Marie Howe, Mother Teresa and Amy Lowell as well as Edna St. Vincent Millay, Christina Georgina Rossetti, Emily Bronte, Hildegard von Bingen and Sappho.
The idea came from a discussion between Kevin Puts and Conspirare director Craig Hella Johnson where Hella Johnson mentioned the idea of the divine feminine and its origins in the Magnificat as the potential basis for a large-scale choral work. Puts sought out texts that addressed spirituality in a nonspecific yet fundamental manner. "I did not have a message in mind, nor did I seek a narrative thread to be followed throughout the course of the piece," he says. "My narrowing it down to nine had mainly to do with the music I heard and my desire to create a musical shape to the piece. I have to say, the single most powerful poem to me is the first I set, Marie Howes Annunciation. Once I found this, I knew it had to be either first or last. It is almost too beautiful to set to music."
The second piece, If I Were a Swan by poet Fleda Brown (Puts's aunt), was originally intended to be part of To Touch the Sky but the composer thought it should stand on its own. I have loved the poem since I first read it as a teenager and imagined its protagonist gliding over the calm, inland-lake waters of northern Michigan where Brown lives.
These two choral works are paired with Marin Alsop leading the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Puts's Symphony No.4 "From Mission San Juan." The piece was commissioned by the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in California to be performed in the San Juan Bautista Mission also known as the "Mission of Music." The music is loosely based on songs of the Native-American Mutsun people, who kept their own musical traditions as the friars converted and taught them to sing in the Missions choir. In his extensive research, Puts learned he could not directly quote the Mutsuns' sacred melodies; instead he used their melodic shapes and motives as inspiration.
In his review of the recorded performance Baltimore Sun's Tim Smith wrote, "It is easy to savor this lushly lyrical work without knowing any of that background, for Puts writes in such a clear- cut, instantly engaging manner, and organizes his thoughts into such sturdy structures." Smith also noted that "Alsop, who conducted the premiere of the symphony at Cabrillo, led an absorbing performance with the BSO...The orchestra responded with playing of considerable expressive weight."
Now celebrating its twentieth season, Conspirare is one of this country's premier choral ensembles with its home in Austin, Texas, Conspirare is led by founder and artistic director Craig Hella Johnson. Conspirare is a multi Grammy-nominated ensemble with eight recordings on harmonia mundi. Their critically acclaimed album Threshold of Night, Music for Voices and Strings by Tarik O'Regan was released in 2008, landed on Billboard's Top Ten Classical Chart and received two Grammy nominations. Conspirare followed this with a PBS television special, A Company of Voices: Conspirare in Concert. The program was broadcast nationally in March 2009 and received a Grammy nomination. Conspirare's latest recordings, Sing Freedom! African American Spirituals?and Samuel Barber: An American Romantic? were released in September 2011 and September 2012 respectively to outstanding reviews. International Record Review noted that, "you would have to search long and hard to find a choral group which sings with such precision and poise...the choral blend is flawless".
Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music: Marin Alsop Music Director: Kevin Puts Flute Concerto World Premiere August 2-11, 2013 Santa Cruz, CA
PROMS 2013 Royal Albert Hall September 7, 2013: Marin Alsop makes history as the first female to conduct the Last Night at the Proms.
Photo by J. Henry Fair