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Original Voices: Composers Kevin Puts and Anna Clyne 

October 1, 2018
By Steve Holt

 

This month (October 25-27), we’re featuring works by two, ascendant contemporary composers: Briton Anna Clyne and American Kevin Puts. Kevin Puts’s Silent Night was inspired by the horrors of World War I; the orchestral work he’s created from his opera, which receives its world premiere this month with the SFS, is moving and cinematic. Clyne’s Masquerade salutes a peculiarly, delightfully British institution, the annual Proms concerts in the Royal Albert Hall. The two works are brilliant complements to Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole and Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier Suite, which rounds out this program of brilliant, original voices! Here’s more on Puts and Clyne:

“I’m not really an opera guy.” Tell that to the Pulitzer Prize Board, which in 2012 honored Kevin Puts for his very first try at the genre, Silent Night.

And the funny thing is, despite winning the Pulitzer and writing two more operas, Kevin Puts still isn’t an opera guy.

“My focus as a music lover hasn’t really changed so much. I think that I was more interested not in the tradition of opera, and being a part of that, but in telling the story. That’s what I responded to when I first got the libretto. I realized I could really tell a story here, almost paint a picture the way a film composer might. That’s the part I really love, trying to find the right musical setting of some emotion or situation. Just trying to evoke it for the audience. I could never tire of that.”

Silent Night is based on a 2005 French movie, Joyeux Noël, which in turn is based on an actual event from World War I. During an impromptu truce between the trenches, French, Scottish, and German soldiers moved into no-man’s land, played soccer, sang songs, swapped stories, even buried their dead. Soon however, the military brass found out, and ordered everyone back to the business of slaughtering each other.

Minnesota Opera suggested that Puts try adapting the story, and proposed Mark Campbell as the librettist.

“Mark had listened to my orchestral music, and thought, ‘I’d better give him some room.’ I had early on figured out that I wanted to write a four-to-five-minute battle scene, which would just be an orchestral interlude. That was fun; I went crazy with that!

“I don’t think it was my plan early on, but once I started writing it felt right to me to shift all the time between different musical styles. For example, that battle scene is intensely modernist, angular, jagged, but then there are very serene moments. For some reason, I felt I needed to let myself operate at real extremes in terms of vocabulary.”

Puts is excited about this month’s world premiere of Silent Night Elegy, and orchestral reimagining of his opera.

“I’ve worked very hard on it. Eventually I decided I would almost try to tell the story with the orchestra, an opera without words. It’s not absolutely intact, not in the same order, but it still basically tells the story of the opera.”

Puts has written in virtually every musical genre; is there something new he’d like to try?

“I’d like to write film music. I think I’m just as influenced in my own music by film music, and film itself as I am by art music. Some of the first music I really loved was John Williams’s film scores when I was a kid—Star Wars, E.T. I still love them deeply, and I have the scores now. I hope I can find a way to do that.”

 

Where do composers turn for inspiration? One source of Anna Clyne’s Masquerade is a seventeenth-century how-to book, The English Dancing Master. It includes the tune “Juice of Barley,” versions of which live on as a drinking song in the British Isles.

Clyne had been commissioned to write a piece for The Proms, a storied series of concerts held for several weeks every summer at London’s Royal Albert Hall, sponsored (and broadcast) by the BBC. At the Last Night concert, some members of the audience deck themselves out in Union Jacks and promenade (hence, The Proms), a tradition going back to eighteenth-century outdoor concerts.

Clyne remembers, “For the Last Night of the Proms in 2013, Marin Alsop was conducting. It was the first time a woman had led on Last Night, so there was quite a sense of occasion. My piece was to be very celebratory in nature. I wanted to write something that had a lot of energy, that tapped into the festive party atmosphere, and got things off to a high octane start!” She dedicated Masquerade to the Prommers; it’s popular in concert halls all over the world.

Recently, the relative paucity of works by women composers in major symphony halls has been in the news.

“I think it’s good the conversation has been brought to the foreground, good that people are aware that there is imbalance, not just in gender, but in minorities as well. Obviously there’s still a lot more room for development, but I think we’re going in the right direction with orchestral programming.”

Clyne credits two of her mentors, the composers Marina Adamia and Julia Wolfe, for serving as outstanding role models, and laying the groundwork for her generation of musicians. 

“To be honest, I really just think of myself as a composer; I don’t think of myself as a female composer. I’ve just always written the best music I can.”

One of Anna Clyne’s next works looks to be a fascinating collaboration, involving a writer, a choreographer, and an actor. No dancing/drinking song this time; the new work is based on an album by a legendary avant-garde rock singer. Clyne is looking forward to re-imagining that album with a live orchestra.

“I think orchestras are starting to recognize the importance and the excitement of new music. It’s not a piece of music that needs to be shoved into a Beethoven and Brahms program, but you can actually begin to cultivate programming and audiences by having the focus be the contemporary piece.

“It’s a really exciting time for music in general, and especially contemporary classical music. Boundaries between different genres have been really smashed open, which I think is leading to some really exciting music!”