Even before the announcement on Wednesday that Kevin Puts would be the new director of the Minnesota Orchestra's Composer Institute, the 42-year-old composer had made an impact on musical life in the Twin Cities.
Puts's opera "Silent Night," premiered by Minnesota Opera in 2012, earned the Pulitzer Prize for Music that year. The Minnesota Orchestra in 2006 gave the first performance of Puts's Sinfonia concertante, and just two months ago the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra gave the regional premiere of Puts's "How Wild the Sea."
Puts writes music of singular beauty and depth. He often is inspired by a visual image. He wrote "How Wild the Sea" after watching TV news footage of an elderly Japanese man sitting helpless on the roof of his house as it was being carried away by the tsunami of 2011. His wife had been swept under, minutes before.
In the case of Puts's Symphony No. 4, subtitled "From Mission San Juan," which the Minnesota Orchestra is playing this week, the image was of an old Spanish mission in the California town of San Juan Bautista, where some concerts of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary music are held each year.
Two traditions vie for dominance in Puts's four-movement work, that of the founding friars, represented by chant-like passages for strings in the first movement, and that of the Native Americans, the Mutsons, a collection of whose instrumental songs make up the second movement. The friars were frustrated that the Mutsons wanted to keep their own religion — and music — rather than convert. In the soaring brass figures of the third moment, the Mutsuns' music comes to dominate, and in the gentle, consoling finale, "Healing song," the conflict is resolved — sort of.
The young conductor Courtney Lewis led the orchestra in a thoughtful and compelling account of the work Thursday morning at Orchestra Hall. Puts's symphony stands quite capably on its own, but it also served surprisingly well as a prelude to Mahler's Symphony No. 5 in the second half. The way the two composers — Mahler and Puts — structure their climactic moments, the way they prepare those climaxes, and the way they allow their slow movements to unfold gradually, usually in the strings, gave the concert an unexpected coherence.
Lewis drew from the orchestra an effective, carefully detailed performance of the Mahler. Though it lacked the sense of reckless abandon that some think is the essence of this composer's music, there were many striking and beautiful moments, all the yearning and pathos, for instance, in the famous Adagietto.
Puts replaces Aaron Jay Kernis, who resigned last October in protest against the lockout of the musicians. The Composer Institute had become the country's most important post-college training forum for young emerging composers, many of whom have already gone on to make names for themselves.
By giving that one new-music concert a year, the orchestra was able to project an image of itself in the musical world as a bold, adventurous programmer, which, of course, has been a false image for quite a number of years. Who knows? During his three-year contract here, Puts might be able to help drag the orchestra's programming into the present — or, let's say, up to 1990 or so — but most of us wouldn't want to bet on it.
Michael Anthony writes about music.