The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music news: Michigan-born composer Kevin Puts wins the Pulitzer Prize for his World War I opera “Silent Night” two weeks after the Madison Symphony Orchestra performs his “Inspiring Beethoven.” Listen to excerpts of both here. | April 19, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Some people in Madison complain about not hearing enough contemporary or new music.

But the reality is that we get to hear a fair amount of new music.

The acclaimed Lincoln Trio last week performed works by living women composers, including UW composer Laura Schwendinger, on the UW School of Music’s Guest Artist series.

And this week, the Pro Arte String Quartet (below) will perform the fourth world premiere – John Harbison’s String Quartet No. 5 — of a commission this season. (The FREE concert is this Saturday at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall.) The Pro Arte will have done two string quartets (Walter Mays and John Harbison, who is another Pulitzer prize winner) and two piano quintets (Paul Schoenfield and William Bolcom.)

Then there is the UW Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, which this week performed the music of John Harbison (below) and UW alumnus Steven Burke. And this weekend the Madison Chamber Choir is giving the world premiere of a vocal work by San Francisco composer David Conte.

Plus, the Madison chapter of Classical Revolution and New Music Everywhere (NEW MUSE) have already played contemporary works this season.

I’m sure there are more I haven’t mentioned.

But perhaps the most newsworthy or timely performance occurred over the first weekend in April when the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain gave three performances of “Inspiring Beethoven” – based on Ludwig’s famous Symphony No. 7 — by the young Michigan-born, Yale-trained composer Kevin Puts (below).

And now – just this week — comes news that Puts has won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for music for his opera “Silent Night” (below, in a photo by Michal Daniel for the Minnesota Opera) about the temporary, unofficial Christmas Truce between the Germans and the Allies during World War I.

Talk about being timely!

So here is link to a story with excerpts, about the work and the composer:

And here is link to another story about Puts and his Michigan roots:

So, here is a shout-out by The Ear to Maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo by James Gill) and the Madison Symphony Orchestra for making such a prescient and pertinent choice.

Congratulations to all.

And maybe the Madison Opera, where DeMain is the artistic director, will stage a production of “Silent Night” in the not too distant future.

Unfortunately, it was during spring break and I wasn’t able to attend the concert, at which French pianist Philippe Bianconi soloed in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 and then the new MSO Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz turned in a reportedly outstanding performance of Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Ein Heldenleben” (A Hero’s Life).

(The other local connection, of course, is that Allan Naplan, the former general director of the Madison Opera, was at the helm of the Minnesota Opera as president and general director when it gave the world-premiere performance of Puts’ opera, but just recently announced his resignation from the post after only one year.)

Puts sure knows how to choose his material. The Christmas Truce is a popular and timely topic in a time of war and severe partisanship. You might recall when the all-male vocal group Cantus performed a similar piece, quite movingly, during the holiday season at the Wisconsin Union Theater two seasons ago. And World War I (below) plays a big role in the popular PBS Masterpiece drama series “Downton Abbey.”

Now the fact that Puts has won the Pulitzer Prize makes me all the more sorry I missed the MSO concert. But it is the kind of piece – a short curtain-raiser that is a good prelude to a real Beethoven symphony or concerto – that I expect to hear again and see programmed soon.

The performances of “Inspiring Beethoven” (below) were generally well reviewed and received, though there were some exceptions:

Here is Lindsay Christians’ review for 77 Square:

Here is Greg Hettmansberger’s review for Madison Magazine and his blog “Classically Speaking”:

Here is John W. Barker’s review of the Puts work for Isthmus:

Here is a link to Bill Wineke’s review for

What did you think of the Puts piece that tried to capture Beethoven’s creative process?

How did you find his music?

The Ear wants to hear.



  1. I found the “Beethovenesque” piece entertaining and I appreciate composer Puts’ conceit (though I suspect the work probably bears little resemblance to whatever was actually going on in the Master’s mind!).

    I was not at the MSO concert, so the clip that Ear posted was my first hearing. Interestingly, as I listened to it, before ever reading any of the reviews, I immediately heard evocations of not just Beethoven but of Wagner, Moussorgsky (Bald Mountain) and of Ein Heldenleben – the segment where Strauss satirizes the nattering music critics. So imagine my surprise upon learning that the Strauss was on the program. Seems to me that Maestro DeMain is one smart cookie.

    (By the way, I found the images in the video clip distracting and in some cases ludicrous.)

    Comment by Marius — April 19, 2012 @ 9:57 pm

  2. Bill Wineke explains the Puts piece better than the Puts piece explains itself. If one has to rely on a verbal explanation of music to apprehend the music and its composers’ intentions, the piece is either not sufficient, or the intentions are not musical.
    Wineke says the piece is intended to portray the swirl of ideas in the mind of the increasingly deaf L. van B. OK, I get that, the piece kinda did that. Sans that small clue, the piece sounded like an nice modern accompaniment to a melody that never appeared, but Oh, there’s some actual Beethoven, in the original orchestration. Come on, as the late Mike Wallace would have said, this is not what composing is about.
    On the other hand, the subject of the winter truce and the Silent Night origins sounds like a really first-rate subject for an opera. I am sure it will be recorded now that it is Pulitzer material. I wanna hear THAT…

    Comment by Michael BB — April 19, 2012 @ 7:05 am

    • Hi Michael,
      You do have to know something of the origin of “Inspiring Beethoven,” it seems, although I wasn’t there to hear the work.
      Sometimes an idea is easier than the execution.
      Still, from what I have heard, I have to agree that the opera sounds much more interesting.
      But then many composers do indeed develop and grow into their own style.
      I hear promise when I hear Puts.
      Thanks for reading and once again replying insightfully.

      Comment by welltemperedear — April 19, 2012 @ 4:25 pm

  3. I agreed with John Barker about “Inspiring Beethoven” (an appropriately humble title). The highlight of the work, beyond a shred of doubt, was the brief excerpt from Beethoven 7 near the end. His sound was generally fairly pleasant, but I didn’t get the impression he had anything interesting or new to say about Beethoven’s music (or in general).

    Comment by Mikko Utevsky — April 19, 2012 @ 12:09 am

    • Hi Mikko,
      I think you can be justified in your impression. But I do think that the idea of trying to imitate what music sounded like on the inside to the increasingly deaf Beethoven is an interesting premise, even if the execution is flawed.
      I wonder what people with tinnitus would say about whether puts; music captures the cacophony of deafness and the struggle towards coherence.
      Maybe it needs more than one hearing, as much new music does.
      Or may it really is simply a flawed piece.
      Thanks for sending in your impressions. You always have a sharp ear and a sharp tongue.

      Comment by welltemperedear — April 19, 2012 @ 4:28 pm

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