The Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence
When Alan Gilbert became Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in September 2009, one of his cornerstone initiatives was to establish The Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence. The post was made possible by a generous gift from Henry R. Kravis in honor of his wife, Marie-Josée. The couple had already been instrumental in supporting the Orchestra’s commissioning of new works by leading composers.
Following the successful tenure of the first to hold the post — Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg, whose initial two-year position was extended to a third — Gilbert tapped Christopher Rouse, an American composer whose ties to the Orchestra went back to 1984, with a performance of The Infernal Machine. Again, the promise of the collaboration was so warmly and richly fulfilled that the initial appointment for two years was extended to a third.
As Alan Gilbert said at the time of Rouse’s appointment, “Chris Rouse is one of the most important composers working today. I’ve recorded a lot of his music, and it has been a very meaningful and a large part of my musical life for a long time. He has a unique voice and is one of the composers who truly hears what he writes. He doesn’t leave anything to chance: he actually shapes the sound and the emotional flow of his music in a way that only great composers can.” The Music Director describes Rouse’s work as “brilliantly written for the orchestra,” and says that it often “combines a dark personal sensibility with a humorous side,” and is “not only masterfully crafted but also intensely personal. It is very telling and thoughtful about the human condition in a way that is fairly unique today.” The American composer seemed the perfect choice for a maestro and orchestra committed not only to excellence and craft, power and passion, but also to compelling musical storytelling, often in ways that are inexplicit.
The Philharmonic–Rouse connection long preceded Alan Gilbert’s Philharmonic appointment, with the World Premieres of his Pulitzer Prize–winning Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra (1992, with Principal Trombone Joseph Alessi, led by Leonard Slatkin) and Seeing, for Piano and Orchestra (with Emanuel Ax, led by Mr. Slatkin in 1999 and David Zinman in 2003). Still, after Alan Gilbert became Music Director, it flourished as never before, with the World Premiere of Odna Zhizn (2010). The New York Times acclaimed both the work and the alchemy of conductor, orchestra, and composer, writing: “Odna Zhizn is a magical score. Against a backdrop of haunting, pianissimo strings, which move at a glacial pace, Mr. Rouse imposes short bursts of fast, angular flute figures, darkly mysterious contributions from lower-lying woodwinds, and sudden bursts of fortissimo brass. … The orchestra played it all with an understated but palpable virtuosity.”
Once Rouse was selected as The Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence, the three-year collaboration would give birth to Prospero’s Rooms (2013, and hailed by ConcertoNet.com as a “dazzling mini-concerto for orchestra … an orchestral tour de force”), Symphony No. 4 (2014, “skillful and mature … the best Rouse I’ve heard in 20 years,” according to Musical America), and Thunderstuck (2014), as well as the New York Premieres of his Symphony No. 3 (2013) and Oboe Concerto (2013, with Principal Oboe Liang Wang) and performances of Phantasmata (2013), Requiem (2014), and Rapture (2014), to name only the works led by the Music Director.
For his part, Christopher Rouse believed that the Philharmonic appointment was an act of dedication to the creation of music. “Part of the experience of music should be an exposure to the pulsation of life as we know it, rather than as people in the 18th or 19th century might have known it,” he explained. “It is wonderful that Alan is so supportive of contemporary music and so involved in performing and programming it, and I have great admiration for him; our feelings about music line up very, very often.” He added: “I’ve always loved that the Philharmonic plays as though it’s a matter of life or death. The musicians’ energy, excitement, commitment, and intensity are so exciting and wonderful for a composer. Some of the very best performances I’ve ever had have been by the Philharmonic. It was thrilling to be able to work with them more closely.”
Born February 15, 1949, in Baltimore, Maryland, where he still resides.
Christopher Rouse, who from 2012 to 2015 served as The Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence at the New York Philharmonic, is among the most respected composers of his generation, noted for works of impulsive rhythm, vivid color, and catholicity in bringing together the traditions of classical and popular music. He graduated from the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music in 1971, and 25 years later his alma mater also awarded him an honorary doctorate. After private study with George Crumb he pursued composition studies with Karel Husa and Robert Palmer at Cornell University, which granted him the DMA degree in 1977. Also influential in his formation was the composer William Schuman, past president of The Juilliard School and a founder of Lincoln Center.
Rouse went on to teach at the University of Michigan, the Eastman School of Music, and The Juilliard School (where he has taught since 1997, full-time since 2002). In 1988, he received the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award for his Symphony No. 1, and in 1993 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his Trombone Concerto, written as part of the New York Philharmonic’s 150th Anniversary Commissions. In 1993, he was honored with an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Music, and the Academy elected him to its membership in 2002. Also in 2002, Rouse’s Concert de Gaudí, a guitar concerto, was given the Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition. In 2009, he was named Composer of the Year by Musical America, which, in announcing the award, cited particularly his skill as a composer of symphonic scores.
He has served as composer-in-residence for the Indianapolis Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestras, as well as at the Santa Cecilia and Schleswig-Holstein Festivals (both of these at the invitation of Leonard Bernstein), Tanglewood festival, Pacific Music Festival, and Aspen Music Festival. Though he has written in various genres, Rouse is most widely recognized as an orchestral composer. In addition to his Symphonies No. 3 and No. 4, his recent works include Heimdall’s Trumpet, a concerto for trumpet and orchestra premiered in 2012 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Supplica, introduced by the Pittsburgh Symphony in 2014; and Thunderstuck, a “concert opener” first played in 2014 by the New York Philharmonic.
James M. Keller, New York Philharmonic Program Annotator, The Leni and Peter May Chair
This work was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert, Music Director, and composition was completed on November 2, 2008, with the dedication “For Natasha.” Gilbert led the Philharmonic in the world premiere on February 10, 2010, at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, New York City.
From the Composer:
In Russian, “odna zhizn” means “a life.” This fifteen-minute work has been composed in homage to a person of Russian ancestry who is very dear to me. Her life has not been an easy one, and the struggles she has faced are reflected in the sometimes peripatetic nature of the music. While quite a few of my scores have symbolically translated various words into notes and rhythms, this process has been carried to an extreme degree in Odna Zhizn: virtually all of the music is focused on the spelling of names and other phrases. Without actually explaining my “code,” I shall just say that each letter of the alphabet is assigned a pitch and (occasionally) a duration, and words will be spelled out musically according to the letters of those words. It was an enormous challenge for me to fashion these materials into what I hoped would be a satisfying musical experience that functions both as the public portrayal of an extraordinary life as well as a private love letter.
Symphony No. 3
This work was composed in 2011, on commission from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Singapore Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, and Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, and completed on February 3, 2011, in Baltimore, Maryland. It is dedicated “To my high school music teacher, John Merrill,” writes the composer, who continues “without his kindness and encouragement I might never have found the fortitude to persevere in my dream of being a composer.” David Robertson led the St. Louis Symphony in the world premiere on May 5, 2011, in Powell Hall, St. Louis, Missouri. Alan Gilbert led the New York Philharmonic in its first performance of the piece on June 20, 2013, at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, New York City.
From the Composer:
Over the years I’ve often toyed with the concept of “rewriting” a work composed by someone else. By this I do not mean “correcting” or “improving” it; rather, my idea has been to take some central aspect of an already composed work and consider it anew.
My Third Symphony is an attempt to do just this. The unusual form of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 2 furnished the old bottle into which I have tried to pour new wine. Among Prokofiev’s symphonies this one is, I believe, of especially high caliber, though it is rarely programmed. He called it his “symphony of iron and steel,” and it is unquestionably one of his more aggressive and uncompromising scores. Cast in two movements — an opening toccata-like allegro followed by a set of variations — Prokofiev’s own architecture was in turn influenced by that of Beethoven in his final piano sonata. I thus took this structure as my own and tried to maintain Prokofiev’s own proportions between the two movements.
There is little in the way of actual quotation from Prokofiev’s symphony. However, Prokofiev’s opening repeated-note trumpet blasts also begin my symphony, though Prokofiev’s D has here been replaced by an F. There is also a direct quote at the end of my first movement: the solo percussion passage at the end of Prokofiev’s first movement has been transferred here by way of homage. As in the Russian master’s score, the music of this movement is often savage and aggressive.
The second movement of Beethoven’s sonata consists of a theme with four variations and the equivalent movement in Prokofiev’s symphony of a theme with six variations. I decided to split the difference and commit to a theme-with-five-variations form. The variations are of notably disparate character, and the musical language ranges from the dissonant and barbaric to the overtly tonal. After the statement of the theme, the bright and glittering first variation gives way to a highly romantic variation scored for strings and harps only. The third variation is moderate in tempo and mood, but the short fourth is a mostly quiet whirlwind in an extremely fast tempo. The final variation, which follows without pause, possesses a bacchanalian abandon. A final reprise of the theme, again a reference to Prokofiev’s form, brings the symphony to a close. In these variations astute listeners will notice several small nods to particular Prokofiev scores, all intended as a “tip of the cap” to this great Russian composer.
Symphony No. 4
This work was composed in 2013 (completed on June 30 of that year in Baltimore, Maryland), on commission from the New York Philharmonic, which gave its world premiere, conducted by Alan Gilbert, on June 5, 2014, at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, New York City, during the inaugural NY PHIL BIENNIAL.
From the Composer:
The question of what music can “communicate” has been much debated.
It is the most abstract of the arts — e.g., what does a C-sharp “mean”? — and yet it clearly seems to have the capacity to speak volumes to the listener about the myriad aspects of life. Of course, Stravinsky opined that music was incapable of saying anything at all, that the “meaning” was supplied by the listener rather than by the music itself.
Ultimately this is a debate for aestheticians, not composers. But I do fervently believe that there is a “lingua franca” of musical expression, one that most composers have understood over the years and have employed to convey specific emotional states. Of course, some composers have gone even further, attempting to tell actual stories or to describe events in sound. This so-called “program music” can be quite detailed (Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben) or more vague (Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony). Sometimes composers have had a great deal to say about their expressive intent in a given musical work; at other times they’ve had little if anything to say. Asked whether listeners would devise the programmatic meaning of his Pathétique Symphony, Tchaikovsky famously replied, “Let them guess.”
For those of my scores in which I have had a reasonably specific expressive intent, I have usually tried to be open about the nature of that intent. However, there have been a few occasions when I have felt the need to say very little in this regard. The above paragraphs are preamble to the fact that, while I did have a particular meaning in mind when composing my Symphony No. 4, I prefer to keep it to myself. Some listeners may find the piece baffling but will nonetheless have to guess.
This work was composed in 2012 (completed on August 13 in Baltimore, Maryland), on commission from the New York Philharmonic and is dedicated to Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic, who gave the world premiere on April 17, 2013, at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, New York City.
From the Composer:
In the days when I would have still contemplated composing an opera, my preferred source was Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. A marvelous story full of both symbolism and terror, it is only five pages long and would thus require “padding” instead of the usual brutal cutting of the story that operas so often require. I had contemplated some sort of melding of the Poe story with Leonid Andreyev’s symbolist play The Black Maskers. However, there is no opera in my horizon, and so I decided to redirect my ideas into what might be considered an overture to an unwritten opera.
The story concerns a vain prince, Prospero, who summons his friends to his palace and locks them in so that they will remain safe from the Red Death, a plague that is ravaging the countryside. He commands that there be a ball — the “masque” — but that no one is to wear red. But of course a figure clad all in red does appear; it is the Red Death, and it claims the lives of all in the castle.
Central to the story is the castle’s series of seven conjoined rooms, each furnished entirely in a single color and with a Gothic stained glass window of the same color. First is the blue room, followed by the purple, the green, the orange, the white, and the violet rooms. Last, buried in the deepest recess of the castle, is the black room. Only here is the window of a different color — it is crimson red. In the corner is an enormous ebony clock whose mournful tone so disquiets the visitors that they freeze, terrified, whenever it tolls. It is in this room, of course, that Prince Prospero meets his end at the hands of the Red Death.
Prospero’s Rooms is only intermittently programmatic. The opening music is intended to “set the scene.” The centerpiece is the middle section, an allegro that explores the rooms in the order presented by Poe. Rather than attempt to describe the rooms, I have tried to depict the actual colors themselves. The music slows again with the arrival of the seventh room and this point becomes more explicitly narrative in nature.
Perhaps the most specifically programmatic element of the piece is the sound of the ebony clock, which is heard throughout the work and which introduces each room as we enter it.
© Christopher Rouse