Composer Puts offers a musical purpose

Garrick Ohlsson
The Houston Chronical

MUSICIANS had some pretty fierce dustups in the 19th century over the meaning of music. Was it found solely inside a work through the ebb and flow of notes, themes and movements? Or could music refer to emotions and events in the world around it? The war became known as the battle between "absolute" and "program" music.

In reality, the tension was much older, but musicians have often shied from exploring it in detail. Saying which note and which phrase carries what idea is pretty dicey - and scary.

But the issue leaped from the glorious sounds and heady performances by the Houston Symphony as music director Hans Graf and the orchestra began the 2007-08 subscription series Friday in Jones Hall.

The provocateur was American composer Kevin Puts, present for the Houston premiere of his Symphony No. 1.

He talked to the audience about the genesis of the work - how he wanted to explore in the music the resiliency of the human spirit in its striving to overcome difficulties. Depictions of listlessness, angst, tumult, transcendence and reconciliation were in the music, he suggested. And to the listener who wanted to hear that way, they were there.

These days, I'm a little more inclined to be sympathetic to such listening, difficulties and all. While I was on leave from the Chronicle this spring to recuperate from wrist and shoulder surgery, I heard an Internet broadcast of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique.

Before each movement, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. announcer read Berlioz's program. I was caught up short. What seemed so discardable - the program - now had a strong, intimate connection to the music I was hearing. I'm still thinking about the experience.

By design or not, Graf sent up Puts' argument expertly through a multilayered program of Beethoven's Symphony No. 1, the Puts work and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5.

Beethoven's First Symphony made the argument for the abstract - the drama self-contained in the well-sculpted forms and their essential principles of statement, contrast, restatement. Through a lithe, brilliantly played performance, the orchestra musicians made the work stand on its own as an icon of the past. If symphony halls are thought of as museums, as many critics suggest, this was a pretty lively and communicative piece of old art.

Puts' work came from the example of Beethoven, through the evolution of symphonic form in the 19th century. The American's piece had four connected sections akin to Beethoven's, and it followed well-scripted series of contrasting moods, with lots of well-wrought emotional and musical details in each.

The Puts symphony glistened with inventive orchestration (the way instruments are combined for different sounds), and Graf and the orchestra made those sounds range emotionally from overbearingly intense to transcendent. The Symphony No. 1 offered an inviting web of thoughts I would like to encounter again.

After intermission, Graf returned to standard programming with Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. It showed how Beethoven was changing harmonies and form - adding more context for the Puts symphony, if a listener wanted to note it - but it was just as easy to listen to Garrick Ohlsson's performance with awe and appreciation.

His technique was almost too big for the piece. Notes of any and all difficulty flowed effortlessly.

Generally, the pianist exuded strength and loudness, but his ability to taper his technique led, in the middle movement, to crystalline, hushed figurations that were amazingly beautiful.

The performance offered not too much new insight into a familiar work but for the vigor and polish the audience gave it a resounding reception.