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New Flute Concerto by Kevin Puts

available at Amazon
K. Puts, Choral Works / Symphony No. 4, Conspirare / Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, M. Alsop
(Harmonia Mundi, 2013)
As noted many times in these pages, opera companies and symphony orchestras must do more to sponsor new works. It is an expensive and mostly thankless endeavor, to be sure, but necessary to keep the art alive and growing. When commissioning composers, organizations tend to give preference to shorter works, which was at the heart of recent discussion online about longer symphonic works of the last two decades, summed up in a cogent piece by Alex Ross. It was William Robin who got the ball rolling with his enthusiasm for one such rare long orchestral work, Play by Andrew Norman -- an enthusiasm I do not really share. The situation is much the same with opera companies: see my comments on the American Opera Initiative at Washington National Opera. The new flute concerto by Baltimore-based composer Kevin Puts, which does not reach the 30-minute minimum set by Robin, is a case in point, not really a substantial work even though it came into being as a clandestine double commission by Bette and Joe Hirsch. On Sunday afternoon the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra gave the piece its local premiere, on a concert that also included Shostakovich's Festive Overture (unbearably loud) and Tchaikovsky's fifth symphony (not reviewed).

Though he is based now in Baltimore, where he teaches at Peabody, Puts grew up in my home state of Michigan, where his father was a professor at Alma College. Puts was launched to national attention when his opera, Silent Night, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012, but it is telling that this is the first time his music has come under review at Ionarts. His opera and other music I have heard generally suits me, because he does not shy away from tonal styles but is not limited to them in a reactionary way. The first movement was a promising start, if a little too sentimental in a Copland- or Bernstein-derivative way, with a tender cadenza played with a precise tone by soloist Adam Walker that brought the movement to a subdued conclusion.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, BSO breathes new fire into familiar classics in Sunday matinee (Washington Post, April 14)

Tim Smith, BSO offers brilliant Flute Concerto by Kevin Puts on program with Russian favorites (Baltimore Sun, April 10)

Joshua Kosman, Cabrillo Fest review: Rouse premiere a revelation (San Francisco Chronicle, August 5, 2013)
Where the piece really fell apart was in the second movement, because of some rather jarring borrowings from Mozart's K. 467 piano concerto. In an interview a few years ago, Puts admitted to an obsession with Mozart, saying, "I go through times when I ask myself, ‘How can I make my music more clear and fresh, like Mozart’s?’ It’s not that I want to plagiarize." Well, Puts may have crossed that line in this piece, where the connection with the Mozart source was announced in the opening phrases, then repeated in slightly more disguised form over and over, only to have an overt quotation appear in the piano near the end. The finale, back in the mode of Bernstein dance, was likewise simplistic and perhaps too much of a cute thing. One felt bad for the percussionist who had to sweat through an overlong passage with constant shaker rhythm, and while the orchestral musicians gave the catchy section for antiphonal hand clapping a rousing performance, it went on so long that it inevitably felt like a gimmick to pad the conclusion. This is the down side of commissioning and presenting new works: there are a lot of misses for the rare hit.

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