The 2009 Honorees

By Paul Horsley

Few composers have written as skillfully and movingly for orchestra as he, and few have ranged as widely in scope. His self-described “unpredictability” and “off-the-wall inventiveness” has thrilled audiences worldwide, spurred by many of today’s foremost conductors and soloists.

Ask almost anyone who follows contemporary composers about his or her first exposure to the orchestral music of Christopher Rouse and chances are you’ll get a detailed description of the experience. It’s something you never forget.

My own Rouse epiphany came in early 1992 with a Houston Symphony performance of the First Symphony, whose sense of affront, exhilaration, and transcendence immediately reminded me of the symphonies of Mahler and Shostakovich. “Halfway through the piece,” I wrote in the Houston Press, “I found myself thinking, Caramba, we’re finally hearing a new American classic.”

Subsequent exposure to the music of Musical America’s 2009 Composer of the Year has only strengthened my first impression of its preeminence. Few composers have written as skillfully and movingly for orchestra as he, and few have ranged as widely in scope. “One of the few whose music will last,” runs the now-famous quote by fellow composer John Adams, and today there is little reason to doubt that assessment.
Yet early on Rouse became pigeonholed as the “death composer,” largely because of a series of works—ofwhich the First Symphony was one—that dwelled on tragedy and loss. (“Someone important was dying every time I was called upon to conceive a new piece,” the composer remarks.) He spent more than a decade trying to shed that label, commenting with characteristic dry humor that “man does not live by dread alone.” Today the Baltimore native, who turns 60 in February 2009, says that each of his newer works inhabits its own universe. “Things leap around in ways that I can’t even predict from year to year.” It was as if, having confronted the passion, hysterics, and violence that characterized life in the late-20th century, at millennium’s turn he felt freer than ever from anachronistic “isms.”
Except perhaps Romanticism, whose emotional tendencies he rarely eschewed. “The fact that I had my undergraduate training in the late ’60s meant that I willingly tried my hand at all sorts of avant-garde approaches,” he says. “But I kept coming back to the notion that the technique involved was less important than my need to express, which must mean that I’ve always been a Romantic at heart.”
That’s not surprising, considering his mentors: the brooding, ecstatic George Crumb, with whom he studied privately, and the explosively demonstrative Karel Husa, his teacher at Cornell University. But he also studied at Oberlin with Richard Hoffmann, a dedicated serialist, and at Cornell with Robert Palmer, one of America’s most rigorous neoclassicists.
Turning 60 is “not something I’m particularly looking forward to,” Rouse says. “Forty and 50 are fine, but 60 is when they begin giving you your senior-citizen discounts. Maybe I’ll love it, too, but it’s daunting.” Nevertheless his creative urge has “not been snuffed out yet,” he observes, as seen in the steady stream of commissions that still flow in—such as a third string quartet for the Calder Quartet and an upcoming piece for the New York Philharmonic.
“There is something encouraging about the fact that there are people who feel there’s a need for you to keep going,” he says. “They want you to keep writing music, and they’re willing to put their money where their mouth is. That gets back to the hope I have that I’ve meant something to someone.”
Musicians and audiences alike have responded almost intuitively to Rouse’s juxtaposition of strict sonata form with rhapsodic fantasy, or his mixture of percussive onslaughts with often tender quotations from sources ranging from Bruckner to Jefferson Airplane, Shostakovich to Led Zeppelin, Monteverdi to Mahler and Moby Grape. “I don’t have a stylistic preference,” he says. “I’m not interested in academically correct music. I like unpredictability, a certain kind of inventiveness that is off the wall, that goes beyond accepted norms.”
He has taught at the University of Michigan, the Eastman School of Music, and the Juilliard School—the latter full-time since 2002—and was composer-in-residence for the Baltimore Symphony, the Aspen Music Festival, and the Boston Symphony’s Tanglewood Festival. His works have been commissioned and performed by most of the major American and European orchestras, spurred by the enthusiasm of soloists from Ax to Wincenc and conductors
from Alsop to Zinman.
Especially impressive among Rouse’s output is the series of concertos spanning the last 15 years—for violin, trombone, cello, percussion, guitar, flute, piano, clarinet, and oboe. Percussionist Colin Currie said of Der gerettete Alberich, an “epilogue” to Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, that “of all the concertos I’ve played it’s the one that explores the instruments most thoroughly.” Rouse won the Pulitzer Prize for his Trombone Concerto, the Friedheim Award for the First Symphony, and grants including those from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the League of Composers/ISCM. A disc with his Cello Concerto for Yo-Yo Ma won two Grammy Awards, and the Concerto de Gaudi he wrote for guitarist Sharon Isbin won the 2002 Grammy for Best Contemporary Composition. In 2002 Rouse was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
He has had no shortage of admiring critics. Of the Cello Concerto, Edward Rothstein wrote in the New York Times that “Rouse’s . . . is among the most intriguing orchestral music now being written.” John von Rhein wrote in the Chicago Tribune that the 2001 Clarinet Concerto “takes [listeners] on the high-energy roller-coaster ride of their lives.” The Concerto for Orchestra, premiered in 2008 at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, was described by Joshua Kosman in the San Francisco Chronicle as “a boisterous, exhilarating concoction.” And Mark Swed, writing in the Los Angeles Times, called the new Requiem “the first great traditional American requiem.”
But for Rouse, the best validation is not reaping prizes or press clips but reaching listeners. It’s a residue of his academic upbringing amidst the dogma of serialism, perhaps, that he still almost apologizes for writing music that excites audiences. “I suppose it’s considered some sort of blasphemy,” he says, “but if I feel from listeners that I’ve affected them in some profound way, that does matter to me.”
Rouse currently resides in his childhood home in the Mount Washington neighborhood of Baltimore and commutes weekly to Juilliard to guide a new generation of young composers. In addition to constant admiration of contemporary Scandinavian composers and the great 20th-century symphonists, he says he’s held a lifelong fascination with the music of Berlioz.
“His music speaks to me in a way that is more profound than any other composer I know,” he told Chandler Branch of the Chicago-based Soli Deo Gloria, which commissioned his Requiem. “I’m very attracted to the combination of this wild, innovative crazy-man—very forward looking—with the traditional classicist. He’s a wild-eyed Romantic and a very clear-headed Classicist.
“And it’s not unlike the way I think of myself. I am a traditionalist in many ways, but there’s this other part of myself that does like to push the envelope and see how much I can get away with.”
Paul Horsley was the classical-music and dance critic for the Kansas City Star from 2000 to 2008. Before that he spent nine years as the Philadelphia Orchestra’s program annotator and musicologist. He has written for the New York Times, Symphony magazine, Chamber Music, Playbill, and other national publications. He currently writes for The Independent in Kansas City.


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