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Christopher Rouse at Summerfest

August 4, 2010

Christopher Rouse, "The Stephen King of Classical Music"

I’m looking forward to hearing the Calder Quartet play Christopher Rouse’s Third Quartet at Summerfest on Friday Aug. 20.  (I’m reviewing that concert for  Rouse describes his new string quartet:

My overall description of the piece would be something akin to a schizophrenic having a grand mal seizure. This, at least, was the image to which I continually referred as I composed the music. The twenty-minute score is dedicated to the Calder Quartet and, after a slow introduction, follows a standard fast-slow-fast ordering of sections played without pause. The music is staggeringly difficult to play, and I believe this to be my most challenging and uncompromising work to date.

Until this formidable-sounding work is unleashed on San Diegans, here’s an unfinished, unpublished review of mine and some links to full performances to whet your appetite. It’s  from the last time Rouse’s music was heard at Summerfest (Aug. 2008).  He’s hit or miss in my book, but when he connects, he knocks it out of the ballpark, as he did two years ago:

As a freshman composition major at the University of Michigan School of Music, convinced of my inviolate destiny to make a living writing classical music, there was one figure there particularly inspiring to me.  He was a 30-year-old composer with a special postdoctoral fellowship, and it seemed that this fellowship paid him to do little more than compose music and hear it performed at U of M.

Fellowships in academia for creative people are not that unusual.  What made this composer so special was that the performers at the School of Music—not just students, but faculty as well—actively pursued this composer to write them music or to give them an earlier work to perform.  In 1980, performance faculty—not only at Michigan, but also in most colleges and universities–did not take an active part in soliciting new works, let alone in performing them.  A tenured composer could have an office adjacent to a tenured performer, and Said Performer would not play, or even demonstrate an interest in, Said Composer’s music.

So here was this composition fellow—he wasn’t even really faculty, although he did teach a course there titled “Messiaen, Ali Akbar Khan, and Jefferson Airplane”—upon whose office door everyone knocked for commissions and scores, and there was good reason for this.  Whenever this composer had a work on a concert, his music completely blew away whatever else had the misfortune to occupy the same page of the program. I had previously encountered this phenomenon of overwhelming the musical competition with only two other modern composers: Varese and Crumb (both of whom were influences on this composer—in fact, he even studied with the latter). It was obvious to anyone at U of M that through the School of Music halls strode a Major Talent, and I wanted so much to have the career that he had when I turned 30.

In the last year of his residency at U of M, the University Symphony Orchestra asked him to write a brief work that they could use to open their concerts during their upcoming European tour.  That work, a violent, grinding, quirky overture called The Infernal Machine, ultimately became the breakthrough piece for Christopher Rouse.

Nearly three decades later, Rouse is one of the most successful American composers of his generation, if success is measured by commissions and live performances.  On Friday night, SummerFest presented two golden oldies by Rouse, a pair of percussion ensemble works he wrote while still in his twenties: Ku-Ka-Ilimoku and Ogoun Badagris. Just as Rouse’s music did when I was an undergraduate at University of Michigan, these two rock-‘em-sock-‘em compositional juggernauts obliterated the competition for the evening.  Their force and immediacy has not diminished over the years.

Influenced by Polynesian drumming (Ku-Ka-Ilimoku) and Haitian drumming (Ogoun Badagris), both works are similar in their relentless rhythms and gleeful aggression; but beneath their undeniable momentum lie shifting rhythmic cross-currents and skillful orchestrations.  Both works also reveal a mastery of timing: Rouse knows just how long to repeat a pattern or texture before altering it or moving on to something else, and the heart-pounding climaxes in retrospect seem inevitable.

The UCSD percussion ensemble, red fish blue fish, usually performs more radical works: the shock and awe of Xenakis, the wacky wonders of Cage, the spacy grandeur of John Luther Adams, or the minimalist reductionism of Reich. Their rendition of Rouse, a composer previously unperformed by them, was more restrained in both loudness and tempo than other percussion groups, but their moderation allowed for more nuance than usual, and also demonstrated that there is more to Rouse’s musical language than velocity and volume. Leader Steven Schick played percussion parts for each work, guiding red fish blue fish from within to performances of Rouse that were—well, rousing. (Watch their performance here)

I was initially skeptical of hearing both Rouse pieces back to back—despite different meters and instrumentation, they’re a little too much of the same thing.  As it turned out, it took a while after the end of Ku-ka-Ilimoku to set up for Ogoun Badagris, an interval that was amusingly filled by the theatrical shenanigans of Fabio Oliveira, who humorously improvised on the cuica while dancing goofily center stage. It was an inspired bit of pantomime that broke up the boredom, and put a little (and much-needed) emotional space between each percussion work. His hijinks inadvertently carried over into the arresting introduction of Ogoun Badagris—the brief cuica solo there induced chuckles through the hall. No one laughed, however, once Rouse’s brutal musical depiction of human sacrifice got underway.

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