ESSENTIAL RECORDINGS
KEVIN PUTS - Symphony No. 4

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KEVIN PUTS - Symphony No. 4 'From Mission San Juan' - If I Were a Swan - To Touch the Sky - Marin Alsop (Conductor) - Baltimore Symphony Orchestra - Conspirare - Released: September 2013 - Harmonia Mundi 907580

If American composer Kevin Puts is any indication, we can rest assured that "classical" music has a bright future ahead. If he and other composers like him can write symphonic music of this caliber well into the 21st century, then music will never die and interest in it might even grow. I've not had the chance to hear other works by Kevin Puts, but based on his Symphony No. 4 'From Mission San Juan', my Pavlovian reaction would be to compare him to Aaron Copland. One can hear traces, or echoes, of Fanfare for the Common Man and Appalachian Spring within the pages of this symphony. It's a work inspired by the Mission of San Juan where its founding friars, amongst other duties, tried to teach Mutsun Indians how to sing church music. But despite their efforts, it seems the natives hung on to their own music, which resulted in an early American culture clash. The sombre first movement depicts the religious spirit of the mission, but the mood shifts quickly when the second movement showcases the highly spirited music of the Mutsuns. This is where Kevin Puts displays a true talent at juxtaposing many differing elements, from the joyful tunes of the down-to-earth natives to the rigidly pious chants of the missionaries, and by merging them together creates a truly colorful sonic canvas. Conflicts arise in the third movement and thunderous clashes of orchestral forces dominate the scene, but with broad and sweeping melodies the final movement comes to an effective, dramatic and uplifting coda which serves to emphasize the spirit and energy behind the whole work.

A symphony that should become a signpost, a beacon, and light the way forward for many years to come.

As far as the two choral works on this CD are concerned, If I Were a Swan and To Touch the Sky are pretty well par for the course when compared to recent choral writing from composers like Lauridsen, Whitacre, Pärt, etc ... and are a pleasure to listen to. But one song in particular from To Touch the Sky, based on a poem by Emily Brontë and titled At Castle Wood has completely captured my attention and admiration, and is one of the main reasons why I keep listening over and over again to this CD. It begins quietly with only two vocal lines moving over a simple melody carried forward by a steady and constant rhythmic pulse, but as it progresses, the composer layers the tenor, soprano, and baritone voices over each other with rich and expansive harmony, and near the end slowly reverts back to the simple opening melody. One line in particular, 'No wish to keep my soul below' with a shifting interval from a fifth to a fourth on the words 'my soul', is of breathtaking beauty. And both the words and the music add a strange twist to the ending. Just this song alone would warrant having this recording.

My first encounter with the choir Conspirare was with their release of a very impressive CD titled Sing Freedom! reviewed here. I was impressed by the way this choir could express all the different emotions inherent in every song, and am pleased to notice that this quality is still present, and even more so, in this new recording.

I believe all these pieces make their world première appearance on this new recording. Highly recommended to both choral and orchestral fans alike.

Jean-Yves Duperron - September 2013