A Baltimore Orioles fan, Star Trek enthusiast, and rock and roll historian, Christopher Rouse has composed some of the most serious and substantial music of our day. Many of his early works probe the troubled human condition in bleak and unsparing language. “Most of my music deals with pain,” he told a New York Times reporter in 1992. “If your modus vivendi as a composer,” he continued, “is to explore organizational techniques, you have revealed yourself as an intelligent, rational, Apollonian type of person. If, on the other hand, you’re exposing the wounds of a lifetime and perhaps some kind of embracing view of how you function as part of a wounded species, that makes you more vulnerable.” Rapture, the 2000 score that is performed at this week’s concerts, reflects a shift in direction toward writing largely tonal music that attempts to “project a sense of spiritual ecstacy.”
Rouse was largely self-taught as a composer when he entered the Oberlin Conservatory. He received a bachelor’s degree there in 1971 and subsequently studied at Cornell University; his teachers include George Crumb and Karel Husa. He has been on the faculty of the Eastman School of Music since 1981. (In 1983, he taught the school’s first course in the history of rock and roll.) From 1986 until 1989, Rouse served as composer-in-residence of the Baltimore Symphony. Symphony no. 1, written for that orchestra, received the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award in 1988. Since 1997, he has taught composition at the Juilliard School. Rouse was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2002.
In 1993, Rouse was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music for his Trombone Concerto; written in memory of Leonard Bernstein, it quotes from Bernstein’s Kaddish Symphony. Rouse’s sphere of reference is wide and very personal. Iscariot (1989), for chamber orchestra, uses the chorale tune “Es ist genug” that has figured prominently in works by Bach and in Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto. Bonham, scored for eight percussionists, is a tribute to the late John Bonham, drummer of Led Zeppelin. His Cello Concerto incorporates a song by William Schuman and Arnalta’s lullaby from Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea, and it quotes music by Stephen Albert and Andrzej Panufnik, whose deaths partly inspired the work. Der gerettete Alberich (Alberich saved), which was premiered in 1998, is a fantasy for percussion and orchestra on themes by Wagner.
In recent years, Rouse has been particularly involved with works for a solo instrument with orchestra, including Kabir Padavali, an orchestral song cycle with texts by the fifteenth-century Indian mystic poet Kabir; Seeing, a piano concerto that is also a meditation on madness as seen in the tragic lives of Robert Schumann and the rock guitarist-songwriter Skip Spence; and Concert de Gaudí, a guitar concerto inspired by the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí. The most recent work in this series is the clarinet concerto that was given its world premiere here in 2001 by Larry Combs and the Chicago Symphony conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. Rapture is the work that immediately precedes the clarinet concerto in Rouse’s catalog.