Rouse in the House
By Frank J. Oteri
A lifelong Philharmonic fan is now its Composer-in- Residence. Pulitzer Prize–winning composer Christopher Rouse tells author Frank J. Oteri that the Orchestra “can do just about anything.”
Although Christopher Rouse did not grow up in New York City, he has been a huge fan of the New York Philharmonic since his childhood. “As a kid in Baltimore, the Philharmonic was very much a part of my life, albeit a distant one,” recalls Rouse. “I loved watching Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts on television and had many Philharmonic LPs in my collection. I loved the orchestra then and love it now.”
That love for the Philharmonic in his formative years, during the heyday of rock’s ascendancy in the 1960s, led Rouse to become a composer whose early loud and boisterous music married the raw energy of rock to the monumentality and timbral variety of classical music. But then about 20 years ago, the composer further expanded his sonic and emotional palette, creating music that was even more varied and much more difficult to categorize. This was a result of a deeper and more profound relationship with the New York Philharmonic, which commissioned him to write a trombone concerto for Principal Trombone Joseph Alessi. Completed the year after the death of Leonard Bernstein, it is an extremely moving tribute to the legendary composer, educator, and beloved Philharmonic Laureate Conductor. Following its premiere under the direction of Leonard Slatkin on December 30, 1992, Rouse’s Trombone Concerto received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize in Music, solidifying his reputation as one of America’s most highly respected and sought-after orchestra composers.
A second concerto that the Philharmonic commissioned from Rouse, Seeing, for pianist Emanuel Ax, received its first performance, also under Slatkin, in May 1999. (Ax will re- turn to the Philharmonic to perform Seeing on June 20–22, 2013.) Then, in February 2010, during Alan Gilbert’s first season as Music Director, Gilbert led the premiere of yet an- other composition the Orchestra commissioned from Rouse. This tumultuous 15-minute work with the exotic title Odna Zhizn (“one life” in Russian), is a sonic portrait of a dear personal friend of the composer. In addition, Bramwell Tovey has led the Philharmonic in Rouse’s Symphony No. 2, David Robertson has conducted Rapture, and Cho-Liang Lin joined the orchestra for Rouse’s Violin Concerto conducted by David Zinman. The icing on the cake, however, was the announcement last February that Rouse had been appointed as the New York Philharmonic’s Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence, beginning in September 2012.
During the press conference at which Rouse’s appointment was announced, Alan Gilbert claimed that he “never heard one note of Chris’s that doesn’t speak to me as a deep and powerful statement.” The Music Di- rector’s relationship with Rouse’s music pre-dates his own appointment by the New York Philharmonic. During his tenure at the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic he performed many of the composer’s works and recorded two all-Rouse CDs with that orchestra. When asked about Rouse’s music for this article, Alan Gilbert replied: “I like his work because it is honest, often even vulnerable, and is a real reflection of the complicated and deep hu- man being that he is.”
During the course of Rouse’s residency, which lasts through the 2013-14 season, the New York Philharmonic will play many of his works. This season, in addition to Seeing, the Orchestra will perform Phantasmata, a raucous emotional roller coaster from 1985 that is also a real workout for the musicians (February 21–22), and a brand-new work, Prospero’s Rooms (April 17–20), which the Orchestra will subsequently perform during its EUROPE / SPRING 2013 tour. And he will be raising the stakes for next year: he is currently working on his Symphony No. 4, which the Philharmonic will unveil in the 2013–14 season.
“I think they can do just about anything, so I don’t feel constrained to ‘make the music easy,’” said Rouse of the Philharmonic. “They’re strong in strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion, so I believe that I can write whatever I want and know that they’ll play it wonderfully!”
Aside from the “composer” part of this position, there is also the “in residence” aspect, which is a role that Rouse knows well. He has served in that capacity for many years at the Aspen Music Festival as well as in the 1980s at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as part of the watershed Meet the Composer Orchestra Residencies Program, which has had a lasting impact on connecting concert attendees with composers and new mu- sic all across the country. Since 2009, when philanthropist Henry R. Kravis endowed the Philharmonic’s residency, whose first recipient was Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg, the synergy between the orchestra and the new-music community has been tremendous. Since the Lindberg years, one of the key aspects of the residency has been serving as an advisor, in collaboration with Alan Gilbert, in programming the Philharmonic’s CON- TACT! new-music series. Rouse has already added his own perspectives, and Gilbert is eager to bring the fruits of this process to the Philharmonic’s audience.
According to Gilbert, “the ‘in-residence’ part of the title is very important: I want some- one to bring more here than a body of music; I want for him or her to contribute to the orchestra in less concrete ways. Magnus and Chris are both schooled in music in a way that is not in a vacuum: their compositions are enriched by an encyclopedic knowledge of the repertoire. Chris has introduced us to a new bunch of composers which is always exciting. Chris is extremely important and influential as a pedagogue, and that matches the Philharmonic’s interest in making connections with young composers.”
“As an American I take special interest in the music of my compatriots, so perhaps there will be a bit more music by U.S. composers,” Rouse explains. “But we don’t want to seem provincial, so there will still be a good dose of exciting music from overseas. I think the composer-in-residence must be the advocate for living composers: an advocate to the Music Director, the players, and the audience alike.” As the New York Philharmonic’s Com- poser-in-Residence, Christopher Rouse now has a level of visibility before the general public, many of whom are not all that aware of contemporary composers — or classical music in general for that matter. Rouse takes this responsibility very seriously.
“I want people to know that classical music matters; it matters enormously,” he says. “The living composer continues to add to that tradition by writing music now that matters every bit as much as Beethoven and Wagner and Stravinsky mattered in their own day, and in ours. New music is part of a centuries-long continuum, and though the language of the liv- ing composer may seem challenging or even recondite at times we all still try to speak of things that matter.”
ASCAP Award–winning composer and music journalist Frank J. Oteri is the composer advocate at New Music USA and the senior editor of its Web magazine, New- MusicBox (www.newmusicbox.org).
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