Classical: Pulitzer winner Kevin Puts brings new work to SPCO

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 28, 2014 - 1:03 PM

Kevin Puts is still in search of the perfect composition. His newest work pairs the Miró Quartet and the SPCO.

Composer Kevin Puts at home in Yonkers, N.Y. The Pulitzer Prize winner is at work on “The Manchurian Candidate,” whose world premiere is set for March 2015 by the Minnesota Opera.

Photo: Craig Ruttle • Associated Press,

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Kevin Puts wants it known: He still gets up every day, tries hard to meet deadlines and to improve his work, one note at a time.

He’s just a regular guy, a composer — a composer who happens to have won the Pulitzer Prize for music.

“There’s definitely been a lot of interest in commissioning and residencies” since the award, Puts said by phone from his home in Yonkers, N.Y. “I’m still very honored by it, but right now I’m down to the wire of getting the second act of ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ finished.”

He was referring to his follow-up world premiere for Minnesota Opera, where his “Silent Night” was staged in 2011. It subsequently won the Pulitzer.

He returns to Minnesota this week on a different mission. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Miró Quartet will perform his new work “How Wild the Sea” at Ordway Center Thursday through Saturday.

Puts drew inspiration for the music from an image of an old man stuck on the roof of his house in the 2011 tsunami on the Japanese coast. The man, whose wife had been lost in the flood, was soon swept away in the tide. Consequently, the music begins with the quartet and is then engulfed by the orchestra before re-emerging in the voice of the quartet. The second movement explores personal anguish before resolving into passages intended to convey the resiliency of people to rebuild.

“Kevin wears his heart on his sleeve with his compositions, unapologetically,” said Kyu-Young Kim, SPCO’s principal second violin and senior director of artistic planning.

The SPCO program also features a world premiere by John Luther Adams and will be bookended by Beethoven’s First Symphony and Rossini’s Overture to “The Barber of Seville.”

“This is the first time we’ve had two new works on the same program,” Kim said. “They are each such different styles, but each has absolute conviction in his voice.”

This also is Miró’s first collaboration with the SPCO, Kim said. The group is based at the University of Texas at Austin, and the members teach in the school of music. Over the years, the quartet has worked in many partnerships, including with Pinchas Zuckerman, Joshua Bell and Midori.

“We don’t have quartets play with us that often,” Kim said. “So it’s great to start building a body of work.”

Always trying to improve

Puts, a personable young composer, doesn’t pretend that his life hasn’t changed since the announcement that his first opera had won the Pulitzer Prize.

“I was in a state of shock for a few weeks,” he said. “And the award has helped to push things along, such as recordings of my work — it’s made things easier.”

The greatest change in how he works now actually started while he was writing “Silent Night,” which was based on a French film about the 1914 World War I Christmas truce. He worked on nothing other than that project for two years, and he said he finds that’s really the way to go — to be more selective and deliberative.

“That was the first time I said, ‘I am going to clear everything else,’ ” he said. “I learned from that it’s better to do fewer things, very personally and well-crafted.”

“How Wild the Sea” had its roots in Puts’ relationship with the Miró musicians. He had written them a piece seven years ago, which paved the way to this commission — a concerto for string quartet and orchestra. Connections between the quartet’s members and the SPCO brought the St. Paul group in as a co-commissioner, and the piece was first done last December by the University of Texas student orchestra in Austin.

“The nice thing about a student orchestra is that they rehearse over several weeks and made tapes so we could hear it,” Puts said. “We completely revised the second movement.”

  • SPCO WITH THE MIRÓ QUARTET

    What: Premieres by Kevin Puts and John Luther Adams. Conducted by Steven Schick.

    When: 7:30 p.m. Thu.; 10:30 a.m. Fri.; 8 p.m. Sat.

    Where: Ordway Center, 5th and Washington Sts., St. Paul.

    Tickets: $5-$40. 651-291-1144, www.thespco.org.

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