Legacy Conversations: Kevin Puts

Acclaimed contemporary classical composer talks his career and his cinematic music for the concert hall, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Silent Night, his approach to composition and how much John Williams’ music touched him since childhood and inspired him to become a composer

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Few contemporary classical composers have such a wide-ranging, colorful and personal style like Kevin Puts. Winner of the coveted Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for his debut opera Silent Night, he has become one of the leading American composers of his generation. Critically acclaimed for a richly colored, harmonic, and freshly melodic musical voice that has also been described as “emotional, compelling, and relevant,” his works, which include two operas, four symphonies, and several concertos, have been commissioned, performed, and recorded by leading orchestras, ensembles and soloists throughout the world.

A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Kevin Puts started to study piano during childhood. His love for music was ignited by the iconic scores by John Williams for such films as Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, which made a lasting effect on him and were among the inspirations that led him to pursue a career as a classical composer. After high school studies, Kevin went into his academic formation, receiving both his Bachelor’s Degree and his Doctor of Musical Arts Degree from the Eastman School of Music, and his Master’s Degree from Yale University.

His love for movie music, and specifically John Williams, led him to create a personal style characterized by a strong storytelling element. His compositions have been often described as “cinematic” and “film-like” by music critics and commentators, an observation that Puts always took as a compliment.

“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.”

Kevin Puts

Puts’ catalogue is truly impressive and includes major symphonic and operatic works, as well as a great deal of chamber music. His compositions have been performed by top musicians including Yo-Yo Ma, Renée Fleming, Jeffrey Kahane, Dame Evelyn Glennie, and such distinguished conductors as Marin Alsop, Leonard Slatkin, Paavo Jarvi, Brett Mitchell, Keith Lockhart and David Zinman. In 2013, Puts’ Flute Concerto received its world premiere at the Cabrillo Festival with Adam Walker, Principal Flute of the London Symphony, and was subsequently recorded on the Naxos label in 2016 by the Peabody Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop, together with his Symphony No. 2 and the symphonic poem River’s Rush. In all these works, Puts’ impressive skill for colorful, rich symphonic writing is all the more evident, creating a new lexicon for modern concert hall music that is unafraid of being again melodic, tonal yet original and fresh.

Puts has always been quick to acknowledge the importance of film music, including John Williams, to descrive his penchant for a cinematic musical style.

“In our field, in the field of new music we are often criticized for being too cinematic or writing music that is too close to film music, but I have never really understood the aversion to these comparisions. I find it kind of flattering actually, because there is so much film music that I love so much but also because as a composer I want to tell the story with great impact for it to really hit home emotionally for the audience. And the best film composers are after the same thing”.

Kevin Puts

His Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Silent Night is probably his most important and successful work so far, and a testament of his talent for telling a story with music. Commissioned by Minnesota Opera with a libretto by Mark Campbell, the full-length opera premiered in 2011 and is based on the film Joyeux Noel (2005), and has been produced and performed both in United States and Canada, and Europe. Describing his work, Puts said he was “going for a cinematic quality, commenting on the action and the emotions of a scene as it unfolds as a great film composer like John Williams might do it”.

The chorus “Sleep”, one of the most emotional moments of Kevin Puts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning opera ‘Silent Night’

Kevin Puts’ talent also shine when writing for soloists and chamber groups, as evidenced in his beautiful chamber suite Seven Seascapes, commissioned by the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival in 2013 and released afterwards on BCMF Records featuring several other works for soloists and chamber ensemble. What really strikes in Puts’ compositions is his ability to be both simple yet sophisticated. His music establishes a clear communication with the listeners and invite them to be part of the his same journey.

“Seven Seascapes” for Flute, Horn, Violin, Viola, Cello, Bass, and Piano, by Kevin Puts

His most recent orchestral work, The City, was premiered in Baltimore and New York in April 2016. Co-commissioned by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in honor of its 100th anniversary and by Carnegie Hall in honor of its 125th anniversary, the New York Times called it “captivating from the start” and The Baltimore Sun writes that Mr. Puts “never disappoints in terms of orchestral coloring…distinctive lyrical style…and passages of intense melodic fire.”

Kevin is currently writing a new operatic work, an adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, co-commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera and slated for premiere in 2022. The opera will star Renée Fleming, Joyce DiDonato and Kelli O’Hara.

In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Mr. Puts has received numerous honors and awards for composition, including the 2015 Arts and Letters Award and the 2003 Benjamin H. Danks Award for Excellence in Orchestral Composition.

He also devoted part of his musical life teaching young composition students. From 1999 to 2005, he taught composition at The University of Texas at Austin. Since 2006, he has been a member of the Composition Faculty at the Peabody Institute, and currently is the Director of the Minnesota Orchestra Composer’s Institute.

In this conversation, Kevin talks about his career as a contemporary classical composer, his approach to composition as storytelling, what it means to write “cinematic” music for the concert hall, and how much the music of John Williams inspired him since childhood, particulary the score of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.

Thanks to Andrew Ousley (Unison Media) for the help and support. A very special thanks to Kevin Puts for his time and generosity.

For more information about Kevin Puts’ music and works, visit the official website: http://www.kevinputs.com/


List of musical excerpts featured in the episode:

. Kevin Puts, Flute Concerto, I. With great sincerity and affection; flexible, with motion; Adam Walker, flute; Peabody Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop
. Kevin Puts, Silent Night (excerpt), Wexford Festival Opera Orchestra & Chorus conducted my Michael Christie
. Kevin Puts, River’s Rush, Peabody Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop
. Kevin Puts, Network; Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paavo Jarvi (from the album American Portraits, 2011, CSO Media)
. John Williams, “The Rescue and Bike Chase” and “The Departure, from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
. John Williams, “The Asteroid Field”, from The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
. John Williams, Libery Fanfare (1985); Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by John Williams (from the album By Request: The Best of John Williams and the Boston Pops, 1987, Philips Classics)
. John Williams, Olympic Fanfare and Theme (1984); Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by John Williams (from the album By Request: The Best of John Williams and the Boston Pops, 1987, Philips Classics)
. Kevin Puts, River’s Rush, Peabody Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop
. Kevin Puts, Symphony No.2, Peabody Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop
. Kevin Puts, Symphony No. 4, “From Mission San Juan”: II. Arriquetpon (the diary of Francisco Arroyo de la Cuesta, 1818); Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop
. Kevin Puts, Seven Seascapes, I. “Exultation is the going of an inland soul to sea…” (Emily Dickinson); Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival Ensemble
. Kevin Puts, Flute Concerto, II. Andante; Adam Walker, flute; Peabody Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop
. Kevin Puts, Flute Concerto, I. With great sincerity and affection; flexible, with motion; Adam Walker, flute; Peabody Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop
. Kevin Puts, Silent Night (excerpt), Wexford Festival Opera Orchestra & Chorus conducted my Michael Christie
. Kevin Puts, Symphony No. 4, “From Mission San Juan”: IV. Healing Song; Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop
. John Williams, “The Rise of Skywalker”, from Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
. Kevin Puts, Flute Concerto, III. Very fast, with tremendous energy; Adam Walker, flute; Peabody Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop