Kevin Puts was a dark horse for the Pulitzer Prize when his Silent Night brought him the commendation in 2012. But that opera seems in retrospect tailor-made for the award: telling a gripping story in two lean hours of music, sung in five languages and an array of musical styles, Silent Night was nothing if not ambitious, the sort of achievement that cries out for laurels.
Now that Harmonia Mundi has released a new album devoted entirely to Puts's music, featuring a symphony and a pair of a cappella choral pieces, the boldest and most surprising thing about it is the modesty of its scale. As performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Marin Alsop, his Fourth Symphony, a sort of tone-poem describing the clash of Spanish and native musical cultures at California's Mission San Juan Bautista, manages to evoke even in its moments of highest drama a sort of postcard-perfect loveliness.
The skill that goes into rendering these scenes is anything but modest, but if this piece paints a picture, the style suggests a work of art not to be venerated in a museum but to be brought home, lived with, and regarded with pleasure.
For the same reason, while the symphony may be the grander statement here, the choral music is the heart of this album. And it is "choral music," not just classical music written for chorus: with these works, Puts has immersed himself fully in the American contemporary choral idiom. Anyone who sings in a choir will recognize that these pieces would be far more difficult to rehearse than Conspirare, under the direction of Craig Hella Johnson, makes them sound, but it is nevertheless next to impossible to imagine the choral musician who wouldn't want to add To Touch the Sky or the related movement If I Were a Swan to their repertoire.
At once contemporary and familiar, Puts's musical voice neither leans forward into the future nor falls back into the past, but concentrates on the present moment, building a direct and intimate connection from composer to performer to audience.
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