Conspirare to Present a Post Pulitzer Prize World Premiere

Kevin Puts (photo J. Henry Fair)

“Reminding you that all music was once new.”

That’s how the American Composers Forum’s “Composers Datebook” radio segment, which is also aired by KMFA, ends every day. A very simple, yet strong reminder that new works are so crucial to the vitality of classical music. Lucky for us, contemporary classical music is not an odd sight in Austin.

This September, Conspirare will present the world premiere of To Touch the Sky by 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winner, and former UT faculty member, Kevin Puts.

“This is an exciting project and premiere for us,” writes Craig Hella Johnson, artistic director of Conspirare, in an email interview. “His music was appealing to me because of the strength of his voice. I always feel like he is saying something very clearly.  His music is beautifully constructed, very intelligent… and also speaks from and to the heart.”

To Touch the Sky is a work for unaccompanied chorus, based on nine texts by women, ranging from Mother Teresa to Hildegard of Bingen to Emily Brontë. (You can read the texts on Conspirare’s website)

“My criteria for choosing these texts were very broad,” writes Puts, “just that they had to address spirituality in some way and they had to be written by women. And my definition of ‘spiritual’ is very nonspecific. I did not have a message in mind, nor did I seek a narrative thread to be followed throughout the course of the piece.”

“I wanted variety in tone, form, message, and even length. My narrowing it down to nine had mainly to do with the music I heard and my desire to create a musical shape to the piece.”

Puts’ 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning work Silent Night received national acclaim at its Minnesota premiere. The praise for the two-act opera often focused on Puts’ ability to meld the music with the libretto and, as Opera News reported, to “weld together heterogeneous musical materials that range from a pseudo-eighteenth-century-opera-within-the opera to jarring atonality.”

Silent Night was his first significant work for voice and To Touch the Sky is his first endeavor in writing for voice alone.

“It was terrifying writing for unaccompanied chorus and also exhilarating!” Puts writes. “In my opera, there are all kinds of instrumental reference points for the singers, by which they can find their pitches. Here they are all alone! For this reason, I had to do a great deal of planning so that the chorus could find their notes from movement to movement. It is most natural for singers to move in a step-wise fashion from note to note, but I love to move the harmony very drastically a lot of the time. So it was interesting to find ways to use the harmonic shifts I like while allowing the singers to move through these harmonies by step.”

Once the intensive rehearsals start four days prior to the premiere (the singers received the score some months ago for individual preparation), Johnson will prepare the ensemble thoroughly.

“We work it from every angle we can to get inside the piece and listen for the piece to reveal itself. We will speak the texts, reflect on them and discuss them—both from the perspective of meaning but also from a phonetic and shape perspective.”

Johnson believes listeners will find the new work accessible, beautiful and substantive.

“The choral writing demonstrates a broad palette of colors and styles and this will really be a great ‘color garden’ for the singers to explore.  Some of the more full-textured sections will really exploit the dynamic and color spectrum that the Conspirare singers have in their tool kit.”

There are four performances from September 27 to September 30. A pre-concert conversation with Kevin Puts and KMFA’s Dianne Donovan is included with your tickets one hour before each Austin performance. You can get your tickets on

Should you miss the performances, To Touch the Sky will be recorded for a future release to be paired with Puts’ Fourth Symphony as recorded by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marin Alsop.

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