The vast American landscape that has always inspired American composers, plus the inspiration that opera composers have always drawn from personal letters, combined for ingratiating performances this week by the National Symphony Orchestra of a nearly new song cycle by Kevin Puts.

Gianandrea Noseda
© Scott Suchman

Three factors helped in the unusually strong success of a new work. One was the performance by veteran American superstar soprano Renée Fleming as painter Georgia O’Keeffe in Puts’ 45-minute composition, The Brightness of Light. American baritone Rod Gilfry was also perfectly cast as the progressively patronizing, romantic and then distant art promoter and photographer, Alfred Steiglitz.

But in particular, it helped that The Brightness of Light is an expansion of an earlier collaboration by Puts and Fleming on Letters from Georgia, which consists entirely of O’Keeffe’s side of the correspondence rather than the back-and-forth in the newer, larger work. The presentation by the NSO, which co-commissioned the work, also took lessons learned from the world premiere of the expanded cycle last summer at Tanglewood.

The NSO decided to project the lyrics as well as relevant painting, photographic and landscape images on a screen behind the orchestra. Such a device can appear precious and trite if the words linger too long on the screen, but opera and art song in English can be paradoxically difficult to understand. And after all, the lyrics in this work consist entirely of the written, rather than spoken, word.

Puts’ tonally oriented music stops just short of being excessive and bombastic by neatly allying itself with the varied themes of the 12 set-pieces that make up The Brightness of Light, with geographic settings ranging from New York City to Taos, New Mexico, and the desert expanding around it. In more soaring passages, the NSO’s now continually improving violin sections helped instill a sense of depth to both what amounted to O’Keeffe’s and Stieglitz’s courtship and romance and the spaciousness of the southwestern US landscape.

Edgy and nervous passages featuring various percussion effects denoted train travel and bursts of letter-writing from Virginia and elsewhere to New York, as Stieglitz’s sponsorship of O’Keeffe’s artwork developed. A particularly substantial orchestral interlude prior to Fleming’s final solo as O’Keeffe seemed a bit overlong and musically meandering, unless perhaps understood as the passage of time in O’Keeffe’s decades of widowhood.

Fleming’s voice – and appearance – remains completely radiant and Puts craftily keeps the soprano writing away from extremes of range more suitable for a younger singer. Gilfry’s baritone was hefty without being overly stentorian. The NSO did not hesitate to situate area microphones in such a way as to ensure the vocals were clearly delivered along with the instrumentals, a wise choice in a piece explicitly based on musical delivery of the written word. The NSO has not always planned out the sound as well in vocal works, and NSO Music Director Gianandrea Noseda’s substantial commitment to opera and art song, now in the third year of a four-year term that is likely to be extended or renewed, benefits from this new assurance.

Two Richard Strauss works surrounding the Kevin Puts song cycle were a mixed bag. The post-intermission work, the tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra, featured Noseda’s familiar pressing of tempi and more fine work by the strings, but was marred by an untogether and almost disengaged entry by the brass on the work’s über-famous opening sunrise. Why what is after all the National Symphony Orchestra of the United States would not perfect the one classical music motif that absolutely every American knows from movies, pop culture and even car dealer commercials is a bit of a mystery. But the symphonic interlude Dreaming by the Fireside, from Strauss’ opera Intermezzo, provided a lush and effective opener to the evening.