Two Mountain Scenes

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            For over a century, now, and most especially for the last fifty years or so, there has existed a rather interesting difference between the receptivity of the lay public to contemporary visual art and to contemporary musical art.   Today, there is almost a commercial “bubble” in the prices of, let’s say, contemporary painting—no matter how avant-garde--while the latest in “serious” musical composition has to constantly fight for acceptance by audiences, and others, as well.   While the “bad boys” of the earlier twentieth century, composers such as Stravinsky, Bartók, Ives, or Varèse, and the like are now well within the fold of universal acceptance, the generation of composers in the decades following WWII has not fared as well—especially those employing the precepts of Schoenberg and his followers.   The dissonance-laden, mathematically driven, abstractions of the latter “school” found ready acceptance only by a small group of cognoscenti, and to a large degree exemplified the difficulty of “modern” music with general music audiences. That situation, unfortunately, was difficult to change.

            That state of affairs, however, does not prevail, today.  Times change, the wheel turns, and for decades, now, a newer generation of composers follow other directions—and why shouldn’t they?   While certainly not in an æsthetic lockstep, a great many of them follow an artistic vision that focuses on communication with their audiences; on an exploration of the infinite attractiveness of orchestra sounds and colors; on aural images that reflect human experience in the perceived world; and even acceptance of—gulp!—beauty and lyricism.  Each marks his own way, and seeks his own voice, but times have changed, and the music of Kevin Puts is grateful evidence of that shift.

            Winner of almost every prize and award (including a Pulitzer in 2012 for his first opera) that matters in contemporary musical composition these days, Puts stands in the forefront of today’s composers who have garnered the respect and admiration of audiences, musicians, and critics, alike.  Educated at the Eastman School of Music and Yale University, Puts has taught at various schools, but focuses upon his life as an independent composer.   That is a rather practical path for him, for he (now in his early forties) has a formidable list of works behind him, including four symphonies, many concertos, choral works, and solo songs.  He has accepted commissions from such august groups as the New York Philharmonic, the Minnesota Opera, the Aspen Music Festival, the Baltimore Symphony, Carnegie Hall, and others.  Audiences worldwide respond to his desire to communicate clearly and elegantly with them—and given his admiration for those qualities in the music of Mozart, it’s understandable.  He has a mastery of orchestra color, an innate gift of lyricism, and a deep sensitivity for exploring the nuances of human experience and the world around us.   And that is fundamental to his Two Mountain Scenes, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, and given its première by that orchestra in 2007.

            Speaking of the work, Puts relates his desire both to reflect the grandeur of the Colorado Rockies, and also to showcase the virtuosity and musicality of that great New York group. The first “scene” is a magisterial one, opening with echoing trumpet calls that seem to bounce nobly around the valleys.   Subsequently, the lush lyricism of the string section depicts the splendor and majesty with which we are all so familiar.   The second scene is a musical depiction of the energy and—at times—fury of Colorado mountain weather.   The wind swirls, storms attack, and all is swept aside by the unforgiving gales.  Puts includes “distant bells” from afar, as a pressing tempo and a web of instrumental figurations immerse one in the alpine maelstrom, leading to a dynamic conclusion.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan