The Very First Note: Insights into the World Premiere of ‘Virelai’ at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
There’s a moment just before a symphony orchestra begins to play, when a theater full of people collectively hold their breath and wait for something astounding to happen.
For composer Kevin Puts, the instant when that silence spills over into song is what it’s all about. “The first note—that’s such an exciting, dramatic possibility,” Puts says. “Confronting a new project with nothing at all, with a blank page, really is a thrilling idea.”
Puts was recently commissioned to write a very important first note: His new composition, “Virelai,” will make its world premiere at the St. Louis Symphony on September 21 (with an encore performance the following afternoon) as part of Stéphane Denève’s very first concert as music director. It’s a significant moment even for a decorated artist such as Puts, whose extraordinary career has included a Pulitzer Prize for his debut opera, “Silent Night,” and who is routinely cited by critics as among the most important composers of his generation. Puts is a longtime fan of Denève’s work, and he considers it “an honor” to welcome the virtuosic French conductor to the Gateway City—that Puts himself is a St. Louis native is the icing on the cake.
“Well, I only lived in St. Louis until the end of third grade,” Puts clarifies when asked the inevitable question, “What high school did you go to?” “The elementary school I went to isn’t there anymore—it was called the Manchester School—however, those are the years when I really got into creating music.”
Puts wanted to be a composer before he even knew how to play an instrument. “I loved going to movies and listening to the scores; I would come home afterwards and try to play it on the piano,” he remembers. “Eventually I started making up my own music, trying to make the piano sound orchestral. At one point, I started piano lessons with a teacher out in the county, but the music was incredibly simple and incredibly boring to me.”
It’s interesting, then, that in the subsequent years, Puts has become a composer who is fascinated with finding transcendence in the fundamentally simple. “There’s a real misnomer out there: that it’s harder to write music that’s more complex, that nobody understands,” Puts explains. “It’s actually not. It’s quite easy to write music that seems complex and challenging and hard to get—I could do that all day. It’s very hard to write something that is essentially quite simple, and everyone immediately knows if it doesn’t land quite right.”
“Virelai” is inspired by the revered medieval poet-composer Guillaume de Machaut, who wrote music when it was largely melodic, almost never harmonic and almost unrecognizably unadorned. In Puts’ hands, though, that melody becomes the catalyst for an extraordinary emotional journey in just four minutes.
Puts himself compares it to Ravel’s “Bolero”: “I keep repeating this two-part melody, and as I do so, the orchestration gradually, very gradually, gets bigger and bigger,” he says. “Gradually, we’re adding elements until the whole orchestra’s playing. Then there’s a moment in the middle where everything kind of turns on a dime and it shifts into a different world, which is much more epic. The elements of the melody are fragmented—it almost turns into sort of a collage—then it all coalesces again into an even bigger version of what you heard at the start.” He laughs. “Followed by a big ending, of course.”
Yet no matter how far his work reaches or how eminent his collaborators—after the Denève premiere, Puts’ next project will be a new opera for legendary soprano Renée Fleming at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City—Puts still approaches the act of composition with the same spirit as when he played his very first note.
“For me, I was just doing the thing I did when I was a kid living in St. Louis: playing the piano,” he says of composing “Virelai.” “Taking a tune and improvising. Thinking, ‘Could I begin with this fragile little piccolo playing this tune and gradually open up the harmony until I have this big, sonorous orchestra playing; that could be amazing.’ But it all starts with me playing the piano.”
Featured image courtesy of Providence Doucet.