Contemporary Engagement: Attention-Grabbing Tactics of a Pulitzer Prize Winning Composer, Kevin Puts

Based on “The engaging voice of composer Kevin Puts: BSO to play symphony by Peabody Institute’s Pulitzer winner,” by Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

Maestra Marin Alsop has an appreciation for all types of music and displays a particular affinity for propelling the work of contemporary composers.  Kevin Puts appears to be one of her favorites.  With the finale of the 2011-2012 concert season, the Peabody Institute’s Pulitzer Prize winner has now been featured by the BSO three times in the past decade.  This article is of particular interest to me because it explores Marin’s adventurousness in artistic programming and the engaging symphonic works of a younger, contemporary composer.  The implications of such practices relates to my master’s portfolio on engaging Millennial audiences in the orchestra concert experience.

The highlighted work of Kevin Puts, his Symphony No. 4, is meaningful in a variety of ways.  It explores some of the history and traditional melodies of the Mutsun Indians, guided by one of their descendants to ensure a more authentic and honorable portrayal of the culture and music.  The first movement[1] has been shaped and is inspired by early 19th century Mutsun melodies and motives (repeated phrases, or melodic themes, in the music).  Movement II represents the collision of two peoples – the Mutsun Indians and the Spanish missionaries who attempted to convert the Mutsuns – with fragments of “Mutsun-like themes” juxtaposed against the Missionaries’ hymns from Spain.  Movement III is a touching and meaningful tribute to history, where the “past and present come together.”  The finale, or the fourth movement of the symphony, pays homage to Mutsun tradition and the patron who commissioned the work.  In this section, Puts offers his own version of a traditional Mutsun healing song.  The finale not only honors the Mutsun culture, it also provides comfort and support for the patron’s ailing wife, Carrie, for whom the piece was commissioned.

Kevin Puts likes the audience to know the story behind the music – a practice that he applies to his work as a composer – because he feels it makes for a more meaningful, genuine, and ultimately more responsive experience.  The overall nature of Puts as a composer and the music he creates has great potential for contemporary audiences to engage in the symphony concert experience.  Puts is known for his “expertly crafted music (that) speaks in a compelling, natural voice.”  Placing an emphasis on authenticity, he takes the time to research and learn about the subject(s) of his work and create a storyline through the music.  Like Marin, Puts can be described as being inclusive and versatile.

Both Marin and Puts work to provide audiences with “vivid entry points” to the music that is being performed.  They enjoy speaking about the story and meaning behind pieces, which in turn promotes understanding and often creates a more moving experience for the members of the audience.  Their willingness to trying new things and incorporate wider variety into individual works and the larger repertoire contributes to the generation of distinctive and appealing music.

This article alludes to great potential for engaging contemporary audiences.  Millennials demand and expect to receive such access, authenticity, insight, variety, and dynamic experience in everyday life and in cultural activities.  The work of Maestra Alsop and composer, Kevin Puts is blurring the boundaries between different eras of music and characters of sound.  The meaningful entry points, blended varieties, and communicative experiences established by the composer, conductor, and the music seem to be opening doors (figuratively and literally) to larger, curious audiences.  Smith’s article confirms my perception of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as having an important role in fostering acceptance for contemporary music and creating increasingly engaging symphony concert experiences for 21st century audiences.


[1] Movements are the main thematic sections of a piece of music; symphonies are typically constructed in four movements.

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