By Caitlin Custer
In the 2022/2023 Season, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra will perform three world premieres—including two SLSO commissions in January: Visions of Cahokia by James Lee III and a Concerto for Orchestra by Kevin Puts. Stéphane Denève has programmed several works by Lee and Puts since joining the SLSO as Music Director in 2018, including Puts’ Silent Night Elegy, an SLSO co-commission based on music from his 2011 opera Silent Night. Puts recently
shared his insights on composing, including the excitement of that first rehearsal.
An orchestra comes to you with a commission. What happens next?
I like to plan in advance and have plenty of time to think about it. Especially if it is something like a violin concerto, a genre that has been around for 300 years, I spend a lot of time thinking about what I can say that would add value to the repertoire. At the end I hope I have created something that is an accurate representation of my voice, as well as satisfying for the musicians.
Sometimes when I write a piece, it becomes its own life, and there are ways that it needs to go that you can’t really fight against. So I’m really trying to filter that process, trying to hold on to the things I decided in the beginning.
Does composing come quickly, with lots of scribbling on a page, or do you like to take more time with it?
Often it comes very quickly, and what happens is that I need to not think about it for a while and come back to it again and again. It’s important to consider it and then reconsider it, bringing a different perspective. Basically, I can’t continue a piece until I’m happy with how it’s going.
How do you know if a piece is going in the right direction for you?
I’ll feel excited, especially by the potential. I love to tell stories and bring a narrative sense to a piece—I get excited by the emotional contour and dramatic ups and downs.
The piece you’re working on for the SLSO is a Concerto for Orchestra. Most people know concertos as a piece for a soloist with orchestra. How is this distinct from that?
It’s really about the sections of the orchestra and how you can put a spotlight on them and have them interact with other groups. There’s also a lot of soloistic writing for the principal musicians. The form it’s taking is very unusual—it’s a lot of short movements, which is very interesting because you can move around the orchestra and feature different things at a quick pace.
When Stéphane and I have talked about this piece we’ve thought a lot about what will be interesting, how best to feature different instruments, how they interact, as well as balancing idiomatic writing and virtuosic writing.
What’s the first rehearsal like?
Exciting, stressful, and a relief. There’s nothing like it, the feeling of having an orchestra play your music. And, orchestras work so fast and everything happens in just a single week or a few days. I’m making sure that things are working and adjusting what I can in that short time. Getting through the first rehearsal, making sure the parts are ok and everybody is generally satisfied, is always a big relief.
What’s it like to share a piece of music with hundreds of people at the premiere?
I’m always quite nervous, but it’s never about “are they going to like my style?”. That’s just not up to me. What I want to know is are they engaged, did I lose them, am I satisfied by how I crafted this? When a piece is written well, there’s a feeling that the musicians can play it with authority and confidence, and the audience can feel that coming off the stage.
I don’t think composing is a private thing that’s just for me or other composers. The moment of sharing music with others is something I like very much. During the premiere I’m really focused on how the music is communicating, what the sense in the room is of the story being told.
Caitlin Custer is the SLSO's Communications Manager.