Review: Kevin Puts’ “How Wild the Sea”
It was a dramatic night Wednesday for Kevin Puts, as the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer returned to the University of Texas to see the premiere “How Wild The Sea,” his striking new piece for the Miro Quartet and the UT Symphony.
UT co-commissioned Puts’ piece along with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra Society, City Music Cleveland, ProMusica Chamber Orchestra and the Naples Philharmonic.
As the Miro took the stage in the Bass Concert Hall, the audience had a more concrete idea that the combination of quartet and orchestra was going to be unusual. The Miro’s violins and viola stood, while cellist Joshua Gindele sat on a platform. All four were plugged into microphones.
From this unusual setup came an eerie mood. Each member of the quartet entered with a subtle whine, one after another. Billed as a series of musical waves, and inspired by the devastating Japanese tsunami in 2011, the piece developed a sort of whirlpool effect. And when the orchestra entered, the piece rollocked unmistakably like the sea.
Puts’ tones in “How Wild The Sea” ran pleasingly together with a palpable tension. The music swirled aggressively, but rarely into prolonged dissonance.
The medium-length work (essentially a concerto for string quartet and orchestra) had a clarity and flow as its color changed completely from the roll of water into punchier whirrs of sirens, and then the pitter patter of a town rebuilding after disaster.
“How Wild The Sea” is the sort of work that, once it’s finished, you’d like to hear again.
As if the music wasn’t dramatic enough, after his premiere, the Butler School of Music presented Puts not with flowers, but with the Eddie Medora King Award for Musical Composition, an honor given to a composer with a distinguished body of work that comes with a $25,000 prize.
From the look of surprise (and perhaps a tinge of embarrassment) on Puts’ face, it was clear the former UT faculty member was touched and caught off guard. (For the record, the Butler School’s award is more than double the financial award from the Pulitzer.)
And how about the young players of the UT Symphony?
They began with a piece by Russian composer Alfred Schnittke, one of those true oddball works full of Euro humor: jokes about Beethoven and the “William Tell Overture.” But it’s not all for laughs, and these young players moved effortlessly between the work’s shifting styles.
Conductor Gerhardt Zimmerman’s brief chats from the podium are engaging, and the preparation that obviously went into producing a world premiere was obvious, as the students clearly had things under control.
They finished the night with the daunting Shostakovich Fifth Symphony. A couple of slight missteps there, but again this was playing at a very high level.
And this is why composers like Puts premiere work with university orchestras. Students work on a piece not over days or hours, but over months. So, as Puts alluded to in his brief speech, he was able to use the rehearsals like a composer’s laboratory, nixing and adding things as the full sound of the piece came clear.
Judging from the searing performance, it’s an arrangement that’s working quite well.