CARNEGIE HALL PRESENTS

Performance Friday, April 15, 2011 | 7 PM

Making Music: Christopher Rouse

Zankel Hall
A concert of chamber music by the Pulitzer Prize–winning composer. It includes what Rouse calls a “savage, propulsive war dance” in honor of a Hawaiian war god, and the New York premiere of his String Quartet No. 3, a Carnegie Hall co-commission.
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CHRISTOPHER ROUSE (b. 1949)

About the Composer  

Every major orchestra in the United States—and a growing number overseas—has played the works of Baltimore-born composer Christopher Rouse. In addition to three symphonies (the latest of which premieres this May with the St. Louis Symphony) and a plethora of smaller-scale orchestral works, he has composed concertos for a staggering number of instruments, including flute, oboe, clarinet, percussion, guitar, harp, violin, cello, and trombone (winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize), and he is currently working on a work for trumpet and orchestra commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Rouse is lauded as a master orchestrator, and it is no wonder that he has cited Berlioz—one of the greatest colorists of all time—as his “desert-island” composer.

Critics often point out the deep emotional pull of Rouse’s works, liberally employing adjectives like “brutal,” “explosive,” “anguished,” “passionate,” and even “downright depressing.” As he rose to the forefront of the American composition scene in the 1980s, Rouse was known for writing flamboyant rock-influenced music that pushed the upper limits of tempo; his more recent output has expressed a profound lyricism and regularly incorporates themes of death or mourning. Other stylistic traits include integrating previously composed music—from Monteverdi to Bernstein—and finding inspiration in Classical mythology. As a result of Rouse’s interest in traditional forms and his acceptance of diatonicism, he is sometimes branded a “New Romanticist,” but his works are driven by a high degree of acerbic dissonance and are seldom content to rest in a purely tonal world.

Rouse has a unique way of composing: Never working from sketches or piano versions, he instead allows the work to gestate in his mind until it is ready to burst onto manuscript paper in its entirety. Also rare for a contemporary composer, he freely admits that he has the audience in mind during the creative process, writing for what he calls “open-minded lay listeners.” The popularity of his works is a testament to his success.



—Jacob Cooper

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Ku-Ka-Ilimoku

About the Music 

Scored for four percussionists on a vast array of instruments, Ku-Ka-Ilimoku was written for the Syracuse Symphony Percussion Ensemble in 1978. Anticipating Rouse’s later works that are connected to Greek mythology, it is inspired by the Hawaiian deity Ku, whose fundamental role can be likened to that of Zeus. Ku takes many forms, and as Ku-Ka-Ilimoku he is the god of war. The work is thus, Rouse says, “best viewed as a savage, propulsive war dance.”


A Closer Listen 

Rouse frames Ku-Ka-Ilimoku around the concise, repetitive patterns characteristic of traditional Hawaiian percussion music. The work opens with a single performer exclaiming one such pattern on the rim of a drum, and the rhythmic impulse soon spreads throughout the ensemble. As the pattern undergoes subtle alterations, the energy never wanes. Exhilarating polyrhythms come to the fore, but at the two structural climaxes—one about halfway through the work and the other at its close—fresh rhythmic unisons carry Ku-Ka-Ilimoku’s momentum to new heights.



—Jacob Cooper

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Rotae Passionis

About the Music 

Rouse has explained that Rotae Passionis (Passion Wheels) addresses the Crucifixion in an almost secular way, examining the death of “Christ the man rather than Christ the Son of God.” The idea finds its source in Northern Renaissance painters such as Bosch and Grünewald, who, unlike their Italian counterparts, took a more human approach to the Crucifixion, casting it as a moment of anguish rather than one of joy.

The work is set in three distinct movements. The first is a “Circular Lament” that depicts the agony of Christ’s final moments in the Garden of Gethsemane; the second is the “Passion Wheels” proper, portraying the 14 Stations of the Cross, from Christ’s condemnation to his placement into the tomb; and the third is a “Parallel Wheel” that serves as an elegy for the deceased man. Borrowing the concept of the “Wheel of Fate” from Orff’s Carmina Burana (which was itself borrowed from medieval and ancient philosophy), the entire Passion is on “wheels” in the sense that the musical material cycles through several iterations and stages of development.


A Closer Listen 

The work opens violently, with a bass drum solo quoting a motive from Orff’s Prometheus. A highly individual clarinet line emerges from the despair and alternates between wearied and frenzied passages, embodying the impassioned voice of Christ. The expressive and striking second movement, scored for seven performers, unabashedly progresses through depictions of the 14 Stations in rapid succession, with each new section proclaimed by a wooden hammer blow. “The effect for which I was striving,” writes Rouse, “was of the listener being strapped to a pew in a church and being forced to watch a slide presentation of each Station flashing by.” The composer describes the closing movement as “almost in the character of a lullaby,” but its sparse orchestration, hushed dynamics, and peculiar dissonances impart a sense of deep foreboding—one that grants no hint of a possible Resurrection.



—Jacob Cooper

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

String Quartet No. 3

About the Music 

Being honored with a great number of commissions leaves little time to compose chamber works. Rouse’s String Quartet No. 3, which premiered last summer and was co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall, represents his first chamber composition since Compline in 1996, and only his second since his previous quartet in 1988. Rouse therefore strove to imbue the new work with a quality not afforded by orchestral music: extreme difficulty. While Rouse’s orchestral pieces are in no sense easy to play, they are necessarily restrained due to the limited amount of rehearsal time they are allotted. In a work for the Calder Quartet, however, no such restraint is required: Rouse understood that the musicians would eagerly respond to radical demands.


A Closer Listen

The virtuosity of the work lies not so much in the individual parts themselves, but in their presentation together; Rouse calls for rhythmic unison throughout, rendering it painfully obvious if the performers are not exactly synchronized. The instruments pass through abrupt glissandi, present a run of quintuplets, recede to a pp three-beat tremolo, attack grace-notes in a triplet rhythm, cry out with heavily accented triple stops—all in step, aside from strategically placed moments that briefly spiral out of control before being reeled back in. “My overall description of the piece,” writes Rouse, “would be something akin to a schizophrenic having a grand mal seizure” (i.e., a seizure that affects the entire brain). The last few measures offer a surprise: a ffff passage with the instruments’ rhythms decidedly not in unison, as if the players have raised a white flag in exasperation.



—Jacob Cooper

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Compline

About the Music 

Ravel’s Introduction et allegro acts as the precedent for Compline’s unique instrumentation of flute, clarinet, harp, and string quartet. Rouse’s work, written in 1996 in response to a commission from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, takes its name from the last prayer (or “Night Prayer”) of the Divine Office, the daily series of Roman Catholic services. Like Rotae Passionis, however, its religiosity is, as Rouse has noted, “more observational than participatory,” simply invoking the mood of evening prayer rather than any specific sacred idea. Rouse sees the work as a belated personal souvenir of his time spent in Rome, a city in which “the sound of [cathedral] bells is never far away.”


A Closer Listen 

Compline presents four sections (fast-slow-fast-slow) in one uninterrupted movement. At the outset, the strings introduce a vigorous three-beat repeated motive, above which the flute and clarinet layer increasingly involved flourishes. This structure gives way to a repeated-note theme, and after the tempo subsides, the harp’s first melodic passage heralds the beginning of the initial slow section. The texture soon expands to a lyrical trio with the winds, an episode that alternates several times with contemplative string passages. The third section picks up where the first left off, now passing the three-beat theme between the flute and clarinet, before moving it fluidly between all the instruments. This heightened activity eventually dissolves into the extended closing section that one may—improbably for Rouse—find reminiscent of Morton Feldman’s music in its delicacy. The coda provides an afterthought, hovering around a serene unison passage and affirming the composer’s own remark that, unlike the majority of his other works, “Compline does not concern itself with death, but rather with light.”



—Jacob Cooper

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Sponsored by Ernst & Young LLP
This performance is part of Making Music.

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