Chamber Music Monterey Bay presents Premiere by Kevin Puts

Maria Bachmann, Jon Klibonoff, Alexis Pia Gerlach, Jon Manasse & Kevin Puts

Chamber Music Monterey Bay (CMMB) launched its season last night at Sunset Center with a world première of “Living Frescoes” by Pulitzer Prize winning composer Kevin Puts. This première was the second event in CMMB’s ambitious four-year commissioning project, “Arc of Life,” a featuring one work each by four outstanding American composers – Joan Tower, Kevin Puts, George Tsontakis and Chris Theofanidis – each commission to be presented during CMMB’s concert season during the years 2011-2014. The inspiration for each of the commissions is the provocative 2002 exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City of a series of endlessly recycling images in video created by artist Bill Viola called Going Forth by Day.

Anyone who has seen Viola’s Going Forth by Day images (and we saw them last year in composer Joan Tower’s contribution to the “Arc of Life” project) is unlikely to forget them. They are disturbingly enigmatic and likely to stir primal memories in each of us. Last year during Joan Tower’s work we saw the images projected first on the back wall of the stage at Sunset Center followed by the performance. Last night, Viola’s images were projected simultaneously as we heard the première of “Living Frescoes” by Kevin Puts performed by the Trio Soloisti, whose players are violinist Maria Bachmann, cellist Alexis Pia Gerlach and pianist Jon Klibonoff. Joining the trio for the the work by Puts was the fantastic clarinetist Jon Manasse.

Composer Puts not only composed separate compositions for each of the five images, but also linked them with subtly recurring motives and further linked them with introductory Preludes and Interludes somewhat in the style of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Thus, we heard a Prelude or Interlude in front of blank screen, and when the image appeared behind the musicians, we entered another dimension stimulated by both the music and the images. You had to watch the images very closely, for they were not altogether static, but rather images that were evolving slowly and almost imperceptibly in subtle ways to become new and often more troubling images.

During its 30 minute duration we watched such varied images as a humanoid trapped in amniotic fluid struggling to emerge, a group of people slowly walking through a forest, the white façade of a building that becomes a scene of panic as people flee a flood of water emanating from its interior that emerges and sweeps away anyone unfortunate enough not to have previously fled, a death and transfiguration scene by an inland sea, and finally the last tableau of rescue workers wrapping up and preparing to depart after a flash flood in the dessert has claimed several victims. Our last impression is another transfiguration scene as the ghostly spirit of one of the victims rises mysteriously out of the water and ascends into the sky, unnoticed by the sleeping people around him.

Puts has written a score that matches and compliments these images. He has created moments of great beauty and serenity, alternating with moments of violence and confusion — often linked to moments of ominous anticipation of events about to happen. His writing for piano is spectacular, and the exciting sounds he created for pianist Klibonoff never drew attention to itself unnecessarily but always seemed inevitable in the way it blended with the textures created by the strings and the clarinet. The writing for strings was at times brilliantly idiomatic and often sensuous in a late nineteenth century, early twentieth century French manner (so much so that at the end of the program when we heard the Chausson Trio, we felt quite at home).

The audience responded with a rousing standing ovation, and the musicians called Mr. Puts to the stage where he received the accolades he so richly deserved. This performance will be broadcast on Friday, October 26, at 8 PM, on KUSP 88.9 FM. It is a pity that the performance was not videotaped in order to be released later on YouTube so a viewer could enjoy the full impact of the performance and the images.

The evening’s program began with a richly detailed and exciting performance of Beethoven’s great Piano Trio in D Major, Op. 70, known as the “Ghost Trio.” In its opening moments cellist Gerlach spun some beautifully rich and elegantly shaped phrases that were a lovely foreshadowing of what was to come. The development section of the first movement was bold, brilliant, and almost terrifying in its intensity. The mysterious, deeply felt emotions in the beautiful slow movement never sounded better, and the final movement continued to amuse us with its twists and turns and unexpected interruptions.

The Chausson Trio in G Minor that ended the program was a complete surprise to me, since I had never heard it previously. Perhaps it is not as spectacular a work as the Poème, but it received a gorgeous performance full of sensuous sounds reminiscent of César Franck, Chopin and Wagner (and in the “Vite” movement, perhaps a touch of Saint-Saëns) plus melodies any composer would have been proud to have written.

Chamber Music Monterey Bay continues its distinguished tradition of excellent programming and its support of contemporary music in its many commissions. What a great way to begin a season!

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