The engaging voice of composer Kevin Puts

BSO music director Marin Alsop (left) with composer Kevin Puts. The BSO will perform a work by the 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner.
BSO music director Marin Alsop (left) with composer Kevin Puts. The BSO will perform a work by the 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner. (R.R. Jones, Handout photo)

There are unexpected perks that can come with receiving a Pulitzer Prize, as composer Kevin Puts discovered last Tuesday.

"It was 'Kevin Puts Day' here," he said by phone from his home in Yonkers, N.Y. "There was a nice ceremony with the mayor. I got a plaque. I never had a day named after me."

Puts, a Peabody Institute faculty member since 2006, won the Pulitzer for "Silent Night," an opera about the unauthorized Christmas truce in the midst of World War I, when troops from both sides of the trenches emerged to celebrate Christmas together before the killing resumed.

"Silent Night" was a hit with critics and audiences at its Minnesota Opera premiere in November. That this was Puts' first attempt at opera made the reception, and the prize, all the more remarkable.

Long before the Pulitzer buzz about Puts, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop chose one of his pieces for this week's final program of the season. It marks the third time in a decade that the BSO has featured the composer, whose expertly crafted music speaks in a compelling, natural voice.

Audiences here will get the biggest dose yet of Puts — his Symphony No. 4. This 25-minute score won a 10-minute ovation when it premiered in 2007 at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, Calif., conducted by Alsop, the festival's music director for 20 years.

The symphony was commissioned by a Cabrillo supporter for performance in the historic Mission San Juan Bautista (the exterior provided indelible images in the Alfred Hitchcock classic "Vertigo").

"It's an amazing place, a very reverberant space," Puts said. "I wanted to create a sense of that reverberation with the music. In the first movement, the melodic lines are staggered by a fraction of a beat, like a written-out reverberation. In the Mission, this made the music sound even washier, dreamier. It will be interesting to hear it played in Baltimore in a traditional concert hall."

Within a short time after being established in 1797, San Juan Bautista became known as the "Mission of Music." The missionaries began converting the local Mutsun Indians and teaching (some say forcing) them to learn hymns from Spain; the church choir became renowned.

"I did more research on this than I've ever done for a piece," Puts said. "I was interested in learning more about the Native Americans, the Mutsun people, who had been there before the mission."

With the help of a musicologist, the composer tracked down an early-1800s manuscript that contained some examples of Mutsun melodies transcribed by one of the missionaries.

"I didn't use anything verbatim," Puts said. "I really was prohibited form doing so. Quirina Luna Costillas, who's a descendant of the Mutsuns, told me that Mutsun music was meant to be performed only for specific purposes. Any other usage would be harmful to her people. So I only used melodic shapes and motives that I found in the book."

The second movement of the symphony juxtaposes Mutsun-like themes against fragments of the missionaries' hymns that Puts extracted from the manuscript. "You get a conflict between the two peoples colliding in that movement," he said.

In another section of the symphony, past and present come together. Cabrillo Festival patron Howard Hansen commissioned the work for his wife, Carrie, who was seriously ill at the time. Puts discovered that there was a "healing song" in the Mutsun tradition.

Again, without borrowing an actual melody, he fashioned his own version of a healing song and made it the finale of the symphony "as my tribute to Carrie," Puts said. He makes no claim for his music's restorative powers, but it's worth noting that Carrie's health improved greatly since the symphony's premiere; she and her husband are scheduled to be in the audience in Baltimore this week.

All of this gives audiences vivid entry points to experience Puts' Symphony No. 4. That's how the composer likes it.

"I can feel the audience responding when they know what the music is about," he said. "I found I love to have a program in mind a lot more than having a completely blank canvas. I respond much better if there is a back story to be told, when I have a lot of information to work with. But it is important not to be manipulative. It has to be genuine or it's not worth doing."

The 40-year-old composer started on the path toward making music in his own genuine way at an early age.

"My parents were not professional musicians," said Puts, who was born in Missouri and raised in Michigan. "But they played classical recordings for me, not necessarily to educate me, but because they loved them. I was so deeply attracted to what I heard. Beethoven, Dvorak, Grofe's 'Grand Canyon Suite' — I just loved all of it."

When he was about 7, his grandparents' piano arrived at his home. Puts was on it in a flash.

"I played by ear," he said. "I started lessons, but I found that so frustrating. The way my mind works, I was more interested in playing music that hadn't been written yet, improvising on the keyboard."

The piano became a heavy focus through high school and into college (he has degrees from Eastman School of Music and Yale University), and Puts remains a formidable player. But the pull toward composing gradually proved stronger.

Since moving to the New York area in 2005 (his wife, Lisa GiHae Kim, is a violinist in the New York Philharmonic), Puts makes his living mainly as a composer. He commutes to Baltimore to teach about 10 students at Peabody 11/2 days a week.

Myriad influences have had a role in shaping Puts' musical style, from the sci-fi movie scores he enjoyed as a teen ("I think that had a huge impact on me") to pop and rock. His Symphony No. 3 was inspired by Bjork's album "Vespertine."

"The music on my iPod is all over the map," Puts said, "from Mozart to Benjamin Britten, [Witold] Lutoslawski, [Christopher] Rouse, [John] Adams and [Steve] Reich. I've also got Sarah McLachlan, Radiohead, some Michael Jackson. And I love Van Halen."

In a Symphony Magazine interview, the Pulitzer-winning Rouse, a Baltimore native who taught Puts at the Eastman School of Music, described his former student as "a profoundly musical composer who has always been open to trying new things rather than getting caught in a rut."

Part of the appeal of Puts' music comes from that openness. It's not just that his works are distinctive, one from the next; there can be a great deal of variety within each as well.

"It is very difficult for me to pare everything down to a single style," Puts said. "My best work has been when I allow myself to move from one category to another. My opera was the best example of that. I try to have as large a palette as possible. It's exciting to try to convince the listener that it is all organic, that it makes sense to move from one sound-world to another."

Although some of those worlds can be dissonant, filled with wonderfully dense harmonies, that represents only a portion of the composer's language.

"I was intellectually drawn to some atonal music when I was in school," Puts said. "I was so fascinated by the complexity of it all. There is a place for that sound, and sometimes I find a place for it in my music. But I cannot escape tonality. It is so fundamental to me. It is the basis for what I do."


If you go

The BSO will perform Kevin Puts' Symphony No. 4, as well as works by Tchaikovsky (with violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg) and Stravinsky at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and 3 p.m. June 10, at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Also at 8 p.m. Saturday at Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. $34 to $68. Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.