Marin Alsop / Baltimore Symphony Orchestra / Conspirare / Craig Hella Johnson

Kevin Puts: To Touch the Sky; If I Were a Swan; Symphony No. 4 "From Mission San Juan"

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Michigan-raised composer Kevin Puts has been touted as a successor to John Corigliano, as a composer whose music is tonal and accessible, but reflects the values of serious composition. This release of his music by the major Harmonia Mundi USA label should come as welcome news to his supporters, and those curious about his music after his 2012 reception of the Pulitzer Prize for music may find it an attractive sampler (it consists of two separate performances of Puts' music, recorded in different places and different times). The two a cappella choral works, If I Were a Swan and To Touch the Sky, are both set to poetry by women; the latter work is a collection of poems from various times and places touching loosely on the "divine feminine." Whether the specificities of these poems can be subsumed so broadly is open to debate, but Puts' style is undeniably attractive. He uses pedal points to anchor the sound, building stacks of harmony around and above them; with the pedal in the background, these can be very closely shaded to reflect ideas in the text, and the overall effect is quite persuasive. The work of the Texas vocal group Conspirare is impressive, and they are very clearly recorded in an Austin church that until now has not been known as an audiophile venue; this is impressive work all around. The other half of the program is not quite as successful and somehow fails to make a satisfying whole when combined with the choral works; the Symphony No. 4 ("From Mission San Juan") is said to be based on Native American musical materials from the area of the mission in California that commissioned the work. The symphony, performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and its indefatigable conductor, Marin Alsop, features a sort of jockeying between these materials and the hymn tunes of white colonizers, but it is questionable whether anyone other than a well-briefed listener would extract the program successfully. Still, on the strength of the choral pieces here, the forecasts about Puts seem to be coming true.

Track Listing

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
1 6:31
To Touch the Sky, 9 songs for unaccompanied chorus on texts by women
2 3:12
3 2:23
4 1:20
5 1:17
6 5:43
7 1:06
8 0:51
9 1:27
10 7:37
Symphony No. 4 "From Mission San Juan"
11 5:50
12 8:02
13 6:11
14 8:22
blue highlight denotes track pick