Meditation on Madness (Preview Prom 6)

Written by: Colin Anderson

Thus Christopher Rouse describes Seeing, a piano concerto for Emanuel Ax. Next Wednesday, 25 July, this 30-minute piece receives its European premiere at the Proms. The original performers from May 1999, Ax and Leonard Slatkin, will be present, the BBC Symphony Orchestra taking over from the New York Philharmonic.

I’m looking forward to hearing Seeing again. I’ve heard a tape of the premiere: words such as eerie and disturbed came to mind. As Christopher Rouse told me: “When I agreed to do this, I was talking to Manny, I mentioned that I’d never heard him play the Schumann concerto. He said ’it’s such a wonderful piece, I don’t think I can do it justice’. So I thought ’you’re going to play it for me!’ At least he can say he’s played a bit of the Schumann.”

Seeing is freer than a more conventional concerto-form might have allowed – “I didn’t want to call it concerto or fantasy. I was looking at some of my rock records, ’Moby Grape 69’, the last song is Seeing; that’s a nice title. Twenty-four hours later, that’s my title.”

For those that don’t know – I didn’t – Moby Grape was “a San Francisco acid-rock band of the late ’sixties,” the song written by the late Skip Spence, one of Moby Grape’s guitarists. Rouse had read a book about rock groups of the ’sixties and discovered that “Skip Spence was a ward of the state in a California asylum, irretrievably psychotic. That got me thinking: seeing – psychotic – Schumann – asylums. Everything gelled about expressing mental illness through what a mentally ill person sees; the music shifting in and out of all sorts of different styles.”

All sorts of music have been a part of Rouse’s life from early on. “I was told by my mother that the Grieg Piano Concerto seemed to have a marked effect on me when I was an infant; I would stop crying if she put it on. The first thing I remember in terms of classical music was the Beethoven Fifth Symphony. I also remember some early rock and roll – Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Just being bitten by the bug, I began to voraciously listen to everything I could get my hands on.”

Thus Christopher Rouse’s composing adventure begun – “I knew right from the start I wanted to be a composer and I wrote a few little pieces when I was seven. Then I did nothing more; I just listened for years”. In his late teens, Rouse, born 1949 in Baltimore, “realised I’d better have some music to submit; the real composing began.”

His ’opus one’ (Mitternachtslieder, 1979, for baritone and orchestra) took some time. “My belief is that music should have an expressive urgency. We spend too much time battling over style – minimal, tonal, atonal; for me the issue is about taking the structure and organisational principles involved and putting them at the service of an expressive goal”. Rouse has dallied with “serial, conceptual, graph pieces and electronic music – always it was meant to be emotive in content.”

I’m not sure now what piece of Rouse’s I first heard; it might be The Infernal Machine, which Leonard Slatkin included in a Philharmonia Orchestra concert of American Music in 1994. Fast, busy, energetic, The Infernal Machine communicated, and a quote from Beethoven’s B flat String Quartet (Op.130) not only raised a smile, it seemed to belong. “This was a sudden commission, I had three weeks to write it. I drew the barline and thought ’what’s coming next?’ Then I remembered the Beethoven, which is the same speed as Infernal Machine, so I wrote them in and went on.”

The Infernal Machine is the middle movement of Phantasmata, which is on an Elektra/Nonesuch CD with Rouse’s Symphony No.1 – that’s a half-hour piece, black and tragic. Listening to it again I thought it a bleak, subterranean response to a 19th-century ascetic. That may have something to with the quote from Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. There are some shattering dynamic contrasts along the way and the work ends in uncertainty – an aura of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony prevalent. “On several occasions there are passages in my works that parallel the Shostakovich Fifth, which for some reason I’ve subsumed into my sub-conscious; actually I think I’ve invented these little licks until somebody points out the quote.”

When Rouse mentions the Bruckner 7 quote, I couldn’t remember hearing it – I’ve found it now, at 22’57”. Again it’s so naturally accommodated and becomes a focal thinking-point, as do the rather Wagnerian Siegfried-like timpani. Symphony No.1 is also rather Sibelian I think. “I love Sibelius. I’m not the best judge on what’s influencing me; everybody’s an influence on me – I guess there’s not a lot of Bellini! Usually a quotation does have a symbolic reason like the Bernstein [in the Trombone Concerto], and the Bruckner Seven – that is the inversion of the main motif of my piece; my idea was to turn on its head the nineteenth-century notion of heroism, so I turned around my principal motif and it becomes Bruckner, which is music for the death of his hero, Wagner.”

These hallmark quotations, and allowing his music shares a similar orbit to Mahler and Shostakovich, shouldn’t deflect us from responding to and assessing Rouse’s output on his own terms – which is, in my opinion, thrilling and moving, passionate and consolatory, wonderfully organised and sounded; though most of all Rouse wants to communicate: “You bet!”

And, boy, does he. With a number of CDs now available, I need do little more than reflect on some of Rouse’s pieces and share with you my thoughts on them – in the hope that if you’re not already following Rouse’s music with interest and enthusiasm, then this could be a good starting-point to do just that.

The 1992 Trombone Concerto is a good beginning. Recorded twice, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, it is dedicated to Leonard Bernstein who had died in 1990, the year that Aaron Copland also departed. “I had started the Trombone Concerto before Bernstein died. When he died – he had said he would like to conduct the premiere – the last movement became a funeral march; then some ’clickings’ – the quotation from Kaddish, his faith theme”. For the record, another Leonard, Slatkin, conducted the first performance.

In reviewing the RCA CD of the trombone piece in 1997, I commented that the concerto’s ’elegiac outer movements carry a great emotional burden; the explosive second movement unleashes maximum fury’. Of the orchestral Gorgon on the same CD: ’torrents of sound – loud, exciting, aggressive, but never gratuitous; Rouse exorcising some personal demons perhaps’. And of Escariot – ’its meditative and speculative stance extends Ives’s The Unanswered Question’. I concluded: ’This is Rouse – a fondness for extremes, a preoccupation with death, and intensely communicative’.

He has his lighter side! The so far unrecorded Violin Concerto I recall as being lyrical and airy – a good companion for Samuel Barber’s concerto perhaps. Beethoven’s Seventh infiltrates – “it’s a joke because it turned out that the tempo for the ’capriccioso’ section becomes dum-da-da-dum-da-da-dum very easily; it’s just one of my silly, sick sense of humour-type things.”

Also unrecorded is Karolju, for chorus and orchestra, a series of multi-lingual “musical Christmas cards,” and “by a country mile the work audiences respond to the most”.

In conversation, Christopher Rouse is humorous – he has a healthy laugh – and business-like as to his work; he’s keen that composers shouldn’t be perceived as people who “walk into walls,” rather that they are “down-to-earth, talk about football and the stock-market”. His music can be optimistic too as his recent orchestral Rapture testifies. Lasting thirteen minutes or so, Rapture – premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony and Mariss Jansons – seems to me to be heavily nostalgic in it shadowy but elevating opening. The initial solo wind and brass lines are pure Americana; as momentum and jubilation gather the music soars – the strong kinship with William Schuman only strengthens Rapture’s appeal. The keenly awaited London premiere is hopefully not too distant.

Even more recent is Rouse’s 20-minute Clarinet Concerto written for the Chicago Symphony’s Larry Combs. Its premiere just this May, Christoph Eschenbach conducting, reveals an unpredictable piece, the soloist released, I thought, into a disco with some crazy lines to play – fantastically difficult by the sound of it – a part of Rouse’s quixotic, rampaging, even obsessive orchestral terrain; it’s a musical maze with some touching interludes. Listen several times and one has a different reaction to what underlies this piece – I would not have thought of 1950s’ game shows!

But to return to Rouse’s music that is commercially recorded. The recent guitar concerto, Concert de Gaudi, is just released. Its riotous opening bars – Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez may be in there somewhere – transport us to a vibrant and seductive world, an aural reflection of Antoni Gaudi’s architecture. Rouse seems to have absorbed ’The Spanish Soul’, certainly flamenco music, and has crafted a wonderfully still, distant-world slow movement, one with a glorious expanse of wonderment near its close.

The dark, introspective Concerto per Corde strips away the ’extras’ of wind, brass and percussion. It’s difficult not to relate this piece directly with Shostakovich, not least for Rouse’s use of the DSCH motto, Shostakovich’s musical signature, using German nomenclature, the notes D, E flat, C and B. Desolate and enigmatic, Rouse searches out an almost unbearable inner-torment – something feverishly exposed by the nightmarish ’Allegro molto’ that follows – and augmented by the lamenting final movement, which transfigures to something ascendant.

These moments of release, or of naked emotion, are memorable facets of Rouse’s Flute Concerto and Second Symphony – two great works on the same CD. In the concerto, the middle ’Elegia’ reflects on Jamie Bulger’s death. Beginning and ending with an almost entranced soundworld, the flute masquerades as a leprechaun in this Celtic-inspired piece – folk-like, darting scherzos, microscopically scored; but that long elegy, with its grief-stricken, yet simply intimate hymnody from 3’07”, a deeply touching moment, is literally the concerto’s heart. The first movement of Symphony 2 seems to me one of Rouse’s finest achievements, busy, lucid, transparently scored, and a handsome exhibition of contrapuntal mastery and instrumental refinement.

The Cello Concerto contains an initially combative David and Goliath-type slanging-match, and is followed by the second movement’s frozen wastes, Monteverdi and Schumann intoned, and a death-rattle in attendance. (There’s a wonderful piece by Leon Kirchner on this Sony CD.)

Rouse has a “loyal band of interpreters” – the A-Z of conductors if you will, including Marin Alsop, Christoph Eschenbach, Leonard Slatkin and David Zinman. “One of the nice things – I tell you I’m a lucky guy to have four people like that, and the other wonderful people who’ve done my music – is knowing that I’m in good hands; if it’s a new piece, it will be understood.”

I plan to write a ’part two’ on Christopher Rouse (there’s too much of our conversation unused). Meanwhile, let’s look forward to Seeing. If you’re not a Rouse-convert, I hope you’ll take the plunge: try the Trombone Concerto (I suggest Joseph Alessi’s recording; the piece was written for him) and Telarc’s Flute Concerto/Second Symphony CD.

As part of my ’studies’ for this article, the re-listening of Rouse’s creations has confirmed my previously positive reaction – here is a body of work that demands and repays attention, for it is fantastically communicative, a musical counterpart of “what it’s like being alive today.”

  • The European premiere of Seeing is in the Royal Albert Hall next Wednesday, 25 July. Prom 6, including Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, is broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 at 7 o’clock, with a repeat on 27 July at 2 o’clock
  • Royal Albert Hall box office: 020 7589 8212
  • Rouse CDs
  • Rouse/Boosey & Hawkes
  • Rouse Website

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