BSO offers brilliant Flute Concerto by Kevin Puts on program with Russian favorites

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
The brilliant Flute Concerto by Kevin Puts gets a terrific performance by Adam Walker with Alsop and the BSO.

The latest Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program mixes Russian favorites with the 2013 Flute Concert by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts to create quite an eventful experience.

Puts, a Peabody Institute faculty member with a major career, writes in a style that is as accessible as it is substantive. Accessibility is viewed with suspicion in some corners, but it's an awfully valuable quality, at least when combined with individuality.

That's something this composer can offer in abundance, one reason why his 2011 opera "Silent Night" has had several productions in this country and abroad. (His follow-up, "The Manchurian Candidate," drew more mixed responses after its premiere last month by the Minnesota Opera.)

The composer's ability to generate fresh melodic and harmonic interest within an essentially neo-romantic  framework gained an admirer in Marin Alsop some years ago. She has introduced several of his works at California's Cabrillo Festival, the contemporary music venture that Alsop runs, and introduced one of them to BSO audiences a few years ago.

Two patrons of the Cabrillo Festival, Bette and Joe Hirsch, became Puts fans. Each set out, independently, to commission a piece from him as a surprise gift. Bette asked Puts to write a short orchestral work to mark Joe's 75th birthday; Joe asked Puts to write a chamber piece with a flute part (Bette played the flute) to mark the couple's 35th wedding anniversary.

Alsop and Puts came up with a better idea -- a single work to honor both patrons. The Hirsches were enthusiastic about the compromise and the work that resulted.

They helped underwrite a recording of the Flute Concerto for the Naxos label. It's being made this week with flutist Adam Walker and the Peabody Symphony Orchestra, led by Alsop (scheduling issues kept the BSO from doing the recording).

In addition to attending Thursday's recording session at Peabody, the couple made it to the BSO's performance that night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and got to witness an extraordinarily enthusiastic reception by the sizable audience.

Walker, principal flutist of the London Symphony, Alsop and Puts were recalled several times to the stage for bows (during one of them, they spotted the Hirsches in the house and applauded them). 

No mistaking what the fuss was all about. Puts has made a significant addition to the flute concerto repertoire.

The three-movement score opens with an ear-grabbing, lyrical melody from the strings that curves around itself and beautifully sets up the action to follow. Intriguing thematic material continues to flow, giving the flute plenty to work with as the first movement makes its colorful way to an almost bittersweet cadenza and a final, unaccompanied solo that sounds like a question mark. 

Puts uses the second movement as an eerie reflection on -- at times a deconstruction of -- the famous Andante from Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 (the one used in the movie "Elvira Madigan").

This richly textured passage suggests a familiar landscape obscured by mists and clouds that give it strange shapes. The flute acts like a guide, threading its way through the unsettling atmosphere and finding fresh perspectives on each fragment of Mozart's melodies.

For the finale, Puts goes on a rhythmic romp that includes animated interaction between flute and ensemble. The culmination of all this energy -- spoiler alert -- is an extended flight for the flute against a backdrop of syncopated hand-clapping by orchestra players, a cool technique that suggests a cheeky, wildly exuberant tip of the hat to Carlos Surinach's "Ritmo Jondo" from the 1950s.

There are moments in Puts' Flute Concerto that seem padded, but the net effect is still refreshing. The treatment of the flute is inspired, the orchestration consistently imaginative. 

Certainly, the performance made a potent case for the piece, thanks especially to Walker's uncanny, effortless virtuosity and exquisitely nuanced tone. Alsop drew a dynamic response from the BSO; only the hand-clapping seemed a wee bit tentative. Lura Johnson played the substantive piano part elegantly.

The evening opened with an account of Shostakovich's "Festive Overture" that was vibrant and bravura enough to make it almost possible to overlook those tacky brass fanfares the composer stuck on each end.

Alsop molded that emotional roller coaster of a symphony, Tchaikovsky's Fifth, not just with skill, but also abundant sensitivity to nuances of tempo and dynamics.

The second movement unfolded with considerable breadth (Phil Munds' poetic, golden-toned horn solo hit the spot), the third with considerable charm. The drama of the outer movements emerged tellingly.

Here and there, particularly the coda to the finale, more visceral impact would have been welcome, but this was still a stirring Fifth that showed off conductor and orchestra to impressive effect.

 

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If you go

The full program repeats at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Music Center at Strathmore. The Tchaikovsky work will be performed as part of a symphonic play, "Tchaikovsky: Mad But For Music," at 7 p.m. Saturday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Call 410-783-8000, or go to bsomusic.org.

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