Interview with Christopher Rouse

Christopher Rouse is one of the most celebrated living American composers. The Baltimore native is the recipient of some of classical music’s highest honors, including a Grammy Award, the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award, and the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Music. He has written a dozen concerti, five symphonies, three string quartets, a requiem, and myriad other works for orchestra, wind ensemble, and various chamber ensembles. He remains one of the most frequently performed living composers in the United States and in 2009 was named Musical America’s Composer of the Year.

At 68, the composer is as busy as ever. His Organ Concerto, written for the organist Paul Jacobs, was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin on November 17, 2016. More recently, his Fifth Symphony was given its world premiere by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra under Jaap van Zweden on February 9th this year. Coming up, his symphonic poem Berceuse Infinie will have its world premiere in Baltimore on November 30th under the steady hands of Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

I recently reached out to Rouse to discuss some of his recent work, neglected musical favorites, and what’s next for the venerable composer.

A lot has been happening lately. You’ve been fairly recently married and have had premieres of both your Organ Concerto and Fifth Symphony within the past year. How’s life treating you?

Life is always a mixture of ups and downs. I’ve been very fortunate as a composer, though, and am exceedingly grateful for it.

You’ve been an advocate of some fairly off-beat pieces of classical music, like Carl Orff’s oft-criticized cantata Carmina Burana, Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 2, and Anton Bruckner’s seldom-performed Symphony No. 6. You’ve also called for the revival of certain works: Orff’s opera Antigonae, William Schuman’s Symphony No. 6, Leon Kirchner’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Lars-Erik Larsson’s Violin Concerto, etc. What pieces do you find to be the most unduly neglected or misunderstood by the standard repertoire?

Oh Lordy, that list would be way too long! Certainly the works you mentioned would qualify. I guess in this context I would lament the near loss in live performance of a whole genre that used to be called “light classical” – everything from Reznicek’s Donna Diana Overture to Enesco’s Romanian Rhapsodies to Rossini, Offenbach, and Suppé overtures. This would also include pieces like Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture. Years ago they were relegated to Arthur Fiedler’s programs with the Boston Pops, but that kind of pops programming hardly exists anymore. One can hear these works on recordings, but not often in concert.

You written at length about music from the past that has particularly affected you (Beethoven, Prokofiev, early rock and roll, etc.), but what of modern music? Are there any works by contemporary composers that you particularly admire?

Again, this would be an enormous list, and I would be afraid of leaving off too many scores by accident. I would say that there is a great deal of wonderful music coming out of the Nordic countries nowadays. There are some terrific composers in the U.K., and of course I remain very proud of what many American composers are doing.

Despite a handful of early chamber pieces, your string quartets, and the occasional work for wind ensemble, you’ve been cast primarily as an orchestral composer. Do you have any desire to part with the orchestra in the future or is it the medium you plan to stick with?

No, I’ve come to realize that the orchestral medium is “my home,” and I’m happy to remain there. I just don’t feel that chamber or solo music are natural habitats for me.

You’ve described your 2002 Requiem as the best piece you’ve ever written. Nevertheless, you’ve expressed doubt that it will be performed again in your lifetime. Does this mean that those of us who weren’t lucky enough to attend its New York or Los Angeles performances shouldn’t hold our breath for a commercial recording either? Is there any hope that the rest of the world will get a chance to hear it?

I’m afraid that there’s nothing on the horizon for the Requiem. It’s a behemoth: ninety minutes long, requiring a children’s choir in addition to the “adult” choir, and those choral parts aren’t easy to say the least. Then there’s extra percussion as well. And ninety minutes of Rouse is a tough sell!

Your 2012 tone poem Prospero’s Rooms developed from the early idea of writing an opera based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” but in the program note to that work you rather emphatically stated that you will not be writing any operas. I must say, however, that the idea of a Christopher Rouse opera excites me very much. You’ve written for solo voice and orchestra before, as in the song cycle Kabir Padavali and the Requiem, so I am understandably curious: Why do you have no desire to write an opera?

To be frank, I don’t think I’m much of a collaborator. The idea of working with a librettist, a stage director, singers and instrumentalists, and various opera managements causes me unease. There are too many potential conflicts. The days of composers such as Wagner and Puccini, who had total control over the productions of their operas, are long gone.

In the program note for your 2009 tone poem Odna Zhizn (Russian for “a life”), you described the work as a “homage to a person of Russian ancestry who is very dear to [you]” and a “public portrayal of an extraordinary life as well as a private love letter.” Last year in an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered you revealed what I imagine many of your family members and closest colleagues had already deduced—that the piece was in fact musical tribute to the woman to whom you are now married, Natasha Miller. Much of the narrative that inspired its composition, which I won’t delve into here, was quite harrowing, even tragic. Her life being the subject of the music, what was Natasha’s reaction to the piece?

I think she was more dazed than anything else, as though it were an out-of-body experience.

You completed a single-movement piece earlier this year called Berceuse Infinie (French for “infinite lullaby”), arranged for both orchestra and wind ensemble. You dedicated the wind ensemble version, which was premiered by the Cornell University Wind Symphony on May 7th, to your friend the late composer Steven Stucky, who died very suddenly early last year (on a brief aside, I must commend the moving tribute you wrote for him at NewMusicBox). What inspired your choice to dedicate a wind ensemble piece to Stucky?

We were fellow students at Cornell in the 1970s, and we remained extremely close friends from that time until his death. As a Cornell student and later a Cornell faculty member, he seemed the obvious dedicatee.

Your Fifth Symphony was just recorded for Naxos Records by Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony, but as I understand it won’t be released until the rest of the album is recorded in 2019. What other works are set to be released with it and when might we anticipate a release?

These things are always subject to change, but right now the other pieces on the disc are intended to be my Concerto for Orchestra and Supplica, both hitherto unrecorded. [In a separate response, Rouse indicated that the album might be available for purchase in spring 2020.]

I see you have a bassoon concerto and a hinted sixth symphony in the works. When and where will be the next Christopher Rouse premieres?

Well, the orchestral version of Berceuse Infinie will have its first performance later this month. After that, the Bassoon Concerto would presumably be next, and then the symphony. But the details haven’t been worked out yet.

(Illustration by J. Allen Williams, courtesy of the artist.)

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