Voices from Georgia O'Keeffe's desert echo in new song cycle at Tanglewood

Rambling Around Tanglewood

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LENOX — "I am the young woman whose charcoals you saw," Georgia O'Keeffe sings. "If you remember what they said to you — I would like to know."

"It is impossible to put into words what I saw and felt," Alfred Stieglitz sings in reply, but "I do want to tell you they gave me much joy."

So begin the excerpted letters between the celebrated painter and photographer that Kevin Puts has set to music in "The Brightness of Light," an orchestral song cycle that will receive its world premiere at Tanglewood on Saturday night. Over a span of 45 to 50 minutes, the narrative chronicles their relationship from first encounter to love and marriage, ending in breakup and Stieglitz' death.

Puts compiled his text from letters from 1915 until 1946, when Stieglitz died. The narrative even imagines O'Keeffe, missing Stieglitz, as sending letters to him after death. She in turn didn't die until 1986, living alone in the American Southwest and painting her iconic desert scenes.

"The most inspiring moment, for me," Puts said in a phone conversation, "is the moment when O'Keeffe really embraces the Southwest, and decides that she needs to live there and fully embrace her work. So at that point the two kind of drift apart and she says, `I have to tell you what it means to live here. It's just terribly right.'"

The premiere is one of the major events of the season, featuring Renee Fleming as O'Keeffe and Rod Gilfry as Stieglitz. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, which co-commissioned the work, will be led by Andris Nelsons, and projections of O'Keeffe and her paintings will provide a backdrop.

It's the first of two Tanglewood world premieres in five days for Fleming, who is this year's Koussevitzky Artist. On Wednesday, she, pianist Simone Dinnerstein and narrator Uma Thurman, with the Emerson String Quartet, will premiere Andre Previn's final work, "Penelope," based on Homer's "Odyssey." The libretto is by playwright Tom Stoppard.

Puts, Fleming and Gilfry will also participate in an immersive Tanglewood Learning Institute weekend of talks, beginning Friday, about Puts' new piece, O'Keeffe and her world.

A widely performed composer, born in St. Louis, Puts won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his debut opera, "Silent Night," a retelling of the Christmas Eve truce between British and German troops during World War I. He has composed two more operas, teaches at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore and is the director of the Minnesota Orchestra's Composer Institute.

The genesis of "The Brightness of Light" was a 2015 commission from Puts' alma mater, the Eastman School of Music, for a piece that the school orchestra could perform in New York's Lincoln Center. Eastman wanted an alumni composer and alumni soloist. For the soloist, it turned to Renee Fleming. To Puts' "great excitement," she accepted.

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"We wanted to focus on an iconic American woman as the subject, and I happened on a quote by Georgia O'Keeffe," Puts writes in a program note. The quote: "My first memory is of the brightness of light, light all around." It gave him the idea and title for the composition-to-be and now occurs as an introduction to the letters.

Perusing the thousands of letters O'Keeffe had written during her 90-year lifetime, Puts came across the lengthy correspondence she had with Stieglitz, who was not only a renowned photographer but also an art curator who first exhibited her work. For Fleming and the Eastman Philharmonic, Puts wrote "Letters from Georgia, which was premiered in 2016.

"Having wholeheartedly embraced the role of O'Keeffe," Puts writes, "Renee proposed expanding the work to include an equal part for Stieglitz." Puts welcomed the challenge.

"By design," Puts goes on, "all the music from `Letters' found its way into `The Brightness of Light.' Ironically perhaps, it was the vivid, poetic language of these two artists best known for their visual art which I found most inspiring in the creation of these works." Gilfry was taken on as a soloist, giving Puts two front-rank singers.

In 12 sections ending in "The High Priestess of the Desert" and "Friends," the story is told chronologically, though the letters are not chronologically arranged. In the interview, Puts said he exercised "artistic license" to "create the illusion of a chronological succession of letters."

"My main concern, the months of going over these letters, was finding material that I thought warranted musical setting and singing, rather than historical accuracy or anything else. I was just trying to find poetry in the letters that would translate into music, and then I worked on how could that all coalesce into something which would actually be chronological."

The collaboration with Fleming only increased Puts' admiration for her as a singer. Her approach to her art, he said, has been "uncompromising throughout her life. She never had a problem with doing what she thought was right and was personal, and that's something that's very difficult for any artist, that I struggle very hard to do."

Gilfry, who has sung with Fleming in the premiere of Andre Previn's "A Streetcar Named Desire" in San Francisco and in "The Merry Widow" at the Met, expressed admiration for both her and Puts' new work. "It's good to sing with her again," he said. Puts' "orchestration is gorgeous," and "he writes in a way that's wonderful for the voice."

But it's O'Keeffe who is the guiding inspiration — "because of her words and the strength of her character," Puts said. "She was a pioneer, she was bold and original."

          


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