Puts’ Spacey ‘Contact’ Is A Close Encounter For Trio And Orchestra

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Time for Three — Charles Yang, from left, Ranaan Meyer, and Nick Kendall — performed the premiere of Kevin Puts’ triple concerto ‘Contact’ with the Florida Orchestra, Daniel Black conducting. (Concert photos: JM Lennon)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — As an opera composer, Kevin Puts tells stories with his music, but the storytelling instinct also extends to his latest work for symphony orchestra, a triple concerto called Contact that he wrote for the string trio Time for Three (TF3). Given its world premiere on March 26 by the Florida Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Black, the concerto is tailored to the unique talents of the trio — violinists Nick Kendall and Charles Yang and double bassist Ranaan Meyer. The group performs with a breathtaking mix of virtuosity, a funky jazz and pop sensibility, and an exuberant stage presence that owes as much to hip-hop as to classical music.

Kevin Puts: ‘We were trying to tell a story.’ (David White)

“With everyone I write for, I try to reflect who they are as musicians, and with Time for Three, they just exude energy, excitement, joy, and optimism, and it’s infectious,” Puts, whose opera Silent Night was awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Music, said in an interview. “The process of writing the piece and working with them was unlike any I’ve experienced; it was such a collaboration from the beginning. They’re so musical and understand composition so well that it’s not like they just play what’s in front of them in the score. They know how to improvise, they understand the malleability of the music and that it can be done in many different ways from what it looks like on the page.”

Contact is very much a product of the Covid pandemic in both the score’s gestation and how this past weekend’s premiere came about. It was commissioned for Time for Three for the San Francisco Symphony and a consortium of orchestras, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Colorado Symphony, the Sun Valley Music Festival Orchestra, the Spokane Symphony, and the Florida Orchestra. San Francisco was slated to play the work first in the summer of 2020, followed by the other commissioning orchestras, but Covid wiped out that plan. Due to the exigencies of orchestra scheduling during pandemic recovery, the premiere landed in the lap of the Florida Orchestra.

“The pandemic was kind of a blessing in disguise,” Puts said. “It gave us time to work on the piece a lot more. We got the orchestration more balanced with the trio, and we developed a cadenza.” At the same time, in something of an unusual arrangement in that the concerto had yet to be played for a live audience, TF3 did a recording of the work for Deutsche Grammophon with the Philadelphia Orchestra, a session held in September 2021 at an empty Verizon Hall, conducted by Xian Zhang, music director of the New Jersey Symphony. The DG recording, also including a new performance of Concerto 4-3, a piece for the group by Jennifer Higdon that Philadelphia premiered in 2008, is to be released in June. Excerpts from Contact are in video below.

Something deep went on between composer and trio as they worked on the music. “We were trying to tell a kind of story, and the idea of contact became something that we thought was part of this piece,” Puts said. “It could be like trying to make contact with alien civilizations that are millions of light years away from Earth, or it could be about reaching across cultural divides, or it could be about the nature of contact that has been so disrupted by the pandemic. I don’t think a story is necessary for people listening to music, but we didn’t want to call it Triple Concerto, which was, in fact, my original title.”

Thus, the piece came to be titled Contact, plus it gained the addition of evocative names for each of the four movements. In a program note, Puts even cites the 1997 film Contact, with Jodie Foster as a scientist seeking to find intelligent life in outer space, which “was admittedly in my mind during these discussions” about the concerto.

TF3 embraced the piece as a story, though not necessarily about astronomy. “The way we have interpreted it is that it’s about the reach for something greater, for the unknown,” Meyer said. “When people think about space, it’s often about extraterrestrial existence, something that might almost be make-believe, but this piece is less about sci-fi and more about the quest for what’s out there, imagining what could be. That’s what we’re thinking about as we dive into inspiring each other when we’re playing it.”

So how did this accessible, emotional, virtuosic work come off in its premiere? In brief: It was dazzling. I have covered my share of new works, and I can’t recall another that received such a jubilant audience response as Contact did in the first of two performances at Mahaffey Theater, as part of the orchestra’s masterworks series. (I also attended the second, matinee performance the next day when the reception was, if anything, more ecstatic.)

Contact opens not with the trio or orchestra playing but with a surprise: Yang, Kendall, and Meyer singing a cappella in falsetto a series of wordless chord progressions over a dozen measures. Their vocals established an ethereal atmosphere that is central to the concerto, which ran about 32 minutes. During the first movement — named “The Call,” suggesting a signal beamed into space — a lovely theme introduced by the trio was echoed and embellished in various permutations in the orchestra, from brass choir to French horn duet to songful flute. Periodically, the trio burst into brilliant flourishes, such as fleet bluegrass fiddling by Kendall and Yang and a jazzy bass solo by Meyer. At the end of the movement they returned to singing while also playing.

Ethereal: ‘Contact’ began with trio soloists Charles Yang, from left, Ranaan Meyer, and Nick Kendall singing in falsetto.

Singing has become an important aspect of Time for Three since Yang, a gifted vocalist as well as violinist, joined the trio six years ago. Kendall and Meyer, cofounders of the group, are cool back-up singers, and in engagements without orchestra, the three sing on half the selections they perform, such as a catchy tune called “Vertigo,” which gave Puts the idea of having them vocalize in the concerto.

For Contact and other works in its repertoire, Time for Three is amplified, mainly to boost the bass and vocals, needed when accompanied by the 82-musician Florida Orchestra. A touch of harshness crept into projection of the violins in the early going of the concerto, but it was soon toned down to the point that I didn’t really notice the amplification anymore. The short second movement scherzo called “Codes” (as in, say, messages in code received from space) was an essay in hard-driving, rhythmic orchestration, punctuated by punchy blasts by the brass and bass drum. It featured spectacular playing by TF3, with the violinists, at times, channeling their inner rock stars to put down their bows and strum their instruments like guitars.

The third movement, “Contact,” is the heart of the concerto. It began with the orchestra playing soft chords in strings that alternated with halting woodwind phrases to create a spooky effect suggestive of what Puts wrote in his program note: “I had the image of an abandoned vessel floating inert in the recesses of space.” The trio entered a minute or two into the movement, emerging quietly to give an enthralling performance, digging into an intricate series of improvised exchanges, anchored by Meyer’s forceful double bass. The orchestra would reassert itself with bold gestures, like a plush chord in the brass right out of a Bruckner symphony, or silken strings reminiscent of a Hollywood soundtrack. At about 11 minutes long, this sublime movement felt as if it could work well as a stand-alone concert piece.

“Convivium,” the finale, was a joyous affair. The score makes what at first seemed like an abrupt detour from the often meditative texture of the first three movements, as TF3 launched into Puts’ treatment of a pair of wild Bulgarian folk dances (which the composer learned from his then-10-year-old son’s cello class). Bobbing and weaving and bouncing around as they played, Yang and Kendall ran with this tuneful music in a relentless jam of high-flying, pyrotechnic passagework, while Meyer pulled rich sonorities from the bass. It was barn-burning stuff, but then the mood gracefully changed with incorporation of the earlier lyrical theme and a searching cadenza, before sending the trio and orchestra into a big, thrilling finish.

As an encore, Yang led his mates in another ode to joy, the classic R&B ballad “Stand by Me” for the cheering, whistling, clapping crowd. Contact was in good hands with Black on the podium. He is in his fourth season as resident conductor of the Florida Orchestra, whose musicians were familiar with Time for Three, having backed the group before in pops concerts.

Daniel Black: Immersed in the score. (Chris Zuppa)

Clearly immersed in the score, Black skillfully mediated the tricky interplay between trio and orchestra, paying close attention to deft solos in the third movement by English horn, oboe, and clarinet (Jeffrey Stephenson, Mitchell Kuhn, and Erika Shrauger, respectively).

The premiere was smartly positioned as part of an all-American program that also included Copland’s arrangement of the folk song John Henry, Gabriela Lena Frank’s Three Latin-American Dances, and Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. You could hear the influence of Copland and Bernstein in Puts’ music, and he and Frank make for a good match of contemporary American composers, both having been born in 1972.

Time for Three will perform Contact July 14-15 with the San Francisco Symphony; with the Philadelphia Orchestra July 28 at Saratoga Performing Arts Center; and Aug. 13 at the Sun Valley Music Festival.

Puts is busy these days, working on his new opera The Hours, with a libretto by Greg Pierce, based on the Michael Cunningham novel and the 2002 film. Its world premiere production is Nov. 22-Dec. 15 at the Metropolitan Opera, with a starry cast that includes Renée Fleming, Joyce DiDonato, and Kelli O’Hara.