Saturday, April 16, 2011

Expressive Urgency: Christopher Rouse at Carnegie Hall

Christopher Rouse: press photograph
A varied and exciting program at Zankel Hall served as my introduction to American composer Christopher Rouse.  A look at his website, with lists of awards, and ringing endorsements from Marin Alsop and John Adams, among others, had convinced me that I was missing out.  I was delighted to discover his intelligent use of eclectic influences in four very different pieces.  Rouse's passionate enthusiasm about music shone as clearly through the works themselves as through his charming conversations on stage.  The audience--diverse, be it noted, in age and ethnicity--responded to the man and his music with eager appreciation.

The rousing Ku-Ka-Ilimoku was the opener, a piece intended to evoke a Hawaiian war god, and also, according to Rouse's comments from the stage, to "bring back the allegro with a vengeance" and inject contemporary composition for percussion with a healthy respect for the principle of "banging the heck out of things."  I loved the creativity of it, and the musicians handled the nuances of tempo, rhythm, and dynamics with verve, as well as banging the heck out of an exciting variety of instruments.  The audience nodded their heads in time, some getting to the edges of their seats.  A student a few seats down from me was making enthusiastic drumming movements in his lap.  When it ended there was shrieking among the applause.

Mary Magdalene: detail from Isenheim Altarpiece
 The next piece, Rotae Passionis, was inspired by the depictions of the Passion by Hieronymus Bosch and Matthias Grünewald; Rouse said he wanted a work that evoked not "the beatific Christ of the Italian Renaissance," but the horror, and the human suffering, found in the works of the Northern artists.  In fourteen movements, following the Stations of the Cross, the work was (at least for me) overwhelming.  It did indeed evoke horror, awe, grief; much of it was earsplittingly brutal (and I do mean to distinguish that from brutally earsplitting.)  The strings shrieked like a mob; brushes snaked like whip strokes across the skin of the drums; the percussionist hammered the nails.  The emotional sincerity of the piece was fierce and unmistakable.  It's not an easy listen, but I'd like to hear it again.

After the head-clearing interval, the Calder Quartet performed the New York premiere of Rouse's String Quartet No. 3 with both virtuosity--a word much bandied in the program notes--and verve.  Dizzying speeds and complex rhythms (at least to my untrained ear) characterized much of it, but there were also opportunities for the players to display lyricism.  The thoroughness of the program notes was admirable; I still felt a little lost, but I think perhaps this was the desired effect?  I kept hearing echoes of Tristan and Bluebeard.  The Calder Quartet had great sound and displayed great skill.  Here Christopher Rouse explains it better, with some excerpts of the piece.  Concluding the concert was "Compline," a 1996 work, which Rouse singled out in his remarks for having been the first piece in several years he had been able to compose while not in the shadow of a loved one's death.  From the title, I had simplistically expected something lyric and largo.  What I got was a "Compline" of complex textures, very much aware of the sorrows of the world and the snares of the devil, of the myriad ways humans clamor to distract ourselves from darkness and death, but also looking forward to the light of eternity.  The busy chatter of the opening was quieted by bells; a cello spoke with a voice that could have been that of a priest.  There was still a great deal of tumult, but it eventually emerged into a radiant peace.

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