Kevin Puts concert, Nov 21, 2022
I went to a concert of music by the contemporary American composer Kevin Puts on November 21, 2022. It was part of the Music Mondays series at Advent Lutheran Church.
Puts is a young-ish composer, 50 years old. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for his first opera, *Silent Night.* The Music Mondays concert was happening the night before the world premiere of his Met-commissioned opera, *The Hours.*
The concert opened with a song cycle, *Of All the Moons,* on poems by Marie Howe. It was performed by mezzo soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano and pianist Aaron Wunsch. The music was direct and expressive. It held together, it sounded like a song cycle, but not like one I had heard before. The word "accessible" is often used in a snarky way when talking about contemporary classical music, but what's wrong with being accessible? Do you prefer your music to be inaccessible?
The piano writing was imaginative, played with admirable clarity by Wunsch. I'd heard Johnson Cano a few times but never in such a prominent way. She has a marvelous voice and knows how to use it, she's a real treasure.
Composers often are praised for writing well for the voice, something not every composer knows how to do (or bothers to learn). Usually that means that the music sits well in the voice, it doesn't spend too long in an uncomfortable register, the phrases are paced well, it has moments of glamour that hit the singer in the sweet spot. Puts checks all of those bullet points but takes it one step further: he understands the expressive capabilities of the voice. He writes music that gives the singer the opportunity to express something. This is very satisfying for the singer and for the audience.
The third song in the set made me think of my favorite light bulb joke. First, for those of you who are not so into classical music in general or vocal music in particular, let me explain what a mezzo soprano is. A mezzo soprano is the mid-range for the female voice. The soprano is the highest, the contralto is the lowest, and the mezzo soprano is right in the middle. Here's the joke:
Q: How many mezzo sopranos does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Ten. One to do it and nine to say, "Isn't that a little high for you, dear?"
Johnson Cano honestly didn't sound like it was a little high for her (dear), but that would definitely be the case with many other mezzos singing this piece.
The fourth song had a longish section for just the voice, that was a daring choice. This song went straight into the final song, which was exciting. The final song had a few surprising harmonic shifts - - this was a departure because Puts seems to like to choose a key and stay in it, stay in that harmonic atmosphere. The harmonic shifts had a lot of impact in this song because the other songs had so much harmonic stasis.
The second piece was the highlight of the concert, a string quartet called *Credo,* played by four members of the Met Opera Orchestra: Qianwen Angela Shen, Julia Choi, Dov Scheindlin, and Julia Bruskin. Fascinating writing for the strings, each of the four players had moments to shine but still the whole thing worked together beautifully. Puts wrote some delicious music for the viola, my favorite of those four instruments. There were some interesting abstract moments at the end of the first movement - - the three lower parts played a warm, repeating pattern and the first violin played something florid and unrelated over it. Puts said in his comments later that this was music written by other composers.
The second movement had a lot of all four players playing rapid 16th notes: chugga chugga chugga chugga, etc. It didn't ever sound like my least favorite thing, what I call "ants in your pants." It was always complex and expressive.
The final movement had extended solos for each player, starting with the cello and moving up from there. That progression had a satisfying sort of storytelling quality to it.
Here's a performance of the quartet by the Rosamunde Quartet:
Next was an aria from Mozart's *La Clemenza di Tito,* "Non più di fiori." It was in a special chamber arrangement for the string quartet, a bass added, and flute, basset horn, and French horn. There was no credit given for the arrangement, which I thought was not right. Johnson Cano sounded great, it was fun to hear her really let it rip. The performance would have been aided greatly by a conductor or a stronger lead from someone in the ensemble. The music often felt slack.
The focal point of the concert was two arias from *The Hours* (libretto by Greg Pierce). The role of Virginia Woolf was being sung by Joyce Di Donato at the Met but it was first performed by Johnson Cano in a concert performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra this past spring. Puts played the piano for these arias, which might have been a small part of the problem - - Wunsch is a much stronger pianist, a deeper sort of artistry. The bigger problem is I didn't find the music very interesting. It was engaging but not as impressive as the other pieces on the program. I'm seeing the opera in a few weeks, hopefully these arias will deliver on a higher level in their true context.