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Christopher Rouse

BSO/Christian Steiner

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 2/27/2008

This weekend Christopher Rouse will get to hear his most popular composition, the Flute Concerto, played by his hometown band, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. A first cousin, once removed, of legendary developer James Rouse, the 59-year-old composer grew up in Mount Washington. He attended Gilman School before going off to college and a career that has won him a Pulitzer Prize, a Grammy Award, and performances of his pieces with nearly every major American orchestra and many European ensembles as well.

But Rouse never lost his love for the Orioles, the "Bawlmerese" accent, and the BSO, and in 2004, after a divorce, he moved from Rochester, N.Y., back to the house he grew up in. He commutes to Manhattan to teach composition at the Juilliard School, but he returns to Mount Washington to work on his commissions. His latest recording is Karolju: Christmas Music From Rouse, Lutoslawski, and Rodrigo (RCA Red Seal) with David Zinman conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonia Chorus.

City Paper: Is it true that you listen to Orioles games while you're composing?

Christopher Rouse: I can't work in silence, so I write with the TV on. It can't be music--it has to be talking--but my preference is to have something on. So much of what a composer does is just grunt work; the creative decisions are just a small part of it. If I'm doubling a violin line in the flute or repeating an ostinato, I like to have something to keep me company, whether it's a ball game, a news report, or a soap opera. When I have to make a creative decision, I can slip off from the TV in my mind. The problem is when I come back I have no idea what's happened in the game or soap opera because I've completely blocked it out for 15 minutes.

CP: Are you a big baseball fan?

CR: I wouldn't call myself a baseball fan--I'm an Orioles fan. I don't appreciate the well-pitched game and well-turned play by the opposite team. I want my team to win no matter how. In my childhood, there was less to do in Baltimore than there is now, so like many people I developed an allegiance to the Colts and Orioles, and it never left me. I was in the ballpark when the Orioles won the '66 series, and we had season tickets to the Colts during the Unitas days. Now, like all right-thinking Baltimoreans, of course, I despise the Colts.

CP: Have computers made that composing grunt work any easier?

CR: I'm a dinosaur--I still do it all by hand. I ship it off to my producer, and they translate it into a computer. I do enjoy the tactile part of composing, holding the pencil in my hand and pressing it into the paper. Moving a mouse around and going "click, click, click" is not the same. I work hunched over a card table. Because I don't play the piano or any other instrument very well, I can't use them as an aid. I've had to develop an inner ear over the years. I don't hear the music I'm writing until two days before the premiere at rehearsal.

CP: As a baby boomer, was it difficult to be a classical-music fan when all your friends were into the rock 'n' roll of the '60s?

CR: Oh, no, I was never someone who chose classical music and dismissed everything else. I was listening to rock 'n' roll, too. I still listen with some frequency, not so much to current things as to the stuff I grew up on--the Beatles, the Byrds, Jefferson Airplane. I even taught a rock history course at the Eastman School of Music for years. People assume I like rock for nostalgia, and surely that's mixed in, but I don't feel like I'm slumming. I think from the Beatles through the mid-'70s, there's a lot of good music there.

CP: Do you listen to rock differently than you listen to classical?

CR: Rock is not trying to do what classical music is trying to do--the forms are shorter, the chord changes are simpler, everything's simpler, in fact, and it's trying to sell records. But working within those structures, you can create a riff, a chorus, or what-not that hits with the same power I get from Beethoven. And I'm not necessarily drawn to the more complicated rock--I was never a fan of British art rock any more than I am a fan of Theodor Adorno, the German music critic who argued that greater complexity meant greater quality.

CP: When you were an undergraduate at Oberlin Conservatory, it was the tail end of a very severe, academic era of Western art music--shaped by Adorno's ideas and the examples of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. How did you break free of that to write such unabashedly emotional music?

CR: Change was already in the air in the late '60s. George Rochberg led the return to tonality. He'd been doing serial music, but when his son died in 1963 he found he couldn't express what he wanted to feel, so he started using triads and quotes and was drummed out of the army, so to speak. By 1975 things were much more open than they'd been in 1965--it was OK to use triads again.

CP: Did tonality become the new orthodoxy?

CR: It wasn't that people stopped doing 12-tone and atonal music--it was just no longer the party line. I tried some serial music and some graph music, which was good because you should always try something before you dismiss it. But I was more interested in composition as a way to express emotions than as a way to organize musical elements. And I still find some 12-tone composers very expressive--Alban Berg, for example.

CP: Was it liberating to be able to use tonality and melody again?

CR: Oh, no, when anything is possible, things get more difficult. When you have so many choices, much of a composer's work is winnowing all these options till there's a small enough pool of possibilities that you can actually do something. When you can create a work that's quite dissonant at times and quite consonant at others, it's a challenge to make them sound like they belong together. Otherwise, it can sound like a gimmick or a shock effect, jumping back and forth from one to the other. I like to think my pieces have a unity to them.

CP: Why were so many of your early works so loud and so aggressive?

CR: Some people have posited that they came from my love of rock 'n' roll. I did have a percussion piece called Bonham, based on Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks." I was a huge Zep fan and remain one. But one of the problems for composers today is they're expected to do this one little thing they're known for with only small changes for the rest of their lives. In the mid-'80s, while I was writing my first symphony, I realized I didn't want to be known as the person who writes pieces that are louder and faster than everything else. So my first symphony is the opposite--very slow and quiet. I wrote it while I was composer-in-residence with the Baltimore Symphony.

CP: How did you develop such a close relationship with David Zinman, who was the BSO's music director then?

CR: I met David when I was still a grad student at Cornell [University] and he was head of the Rochester Philharmonic. The orchestra came down to Cornell to do a reading of some student pieces, and when I started teaching at Eastman six or seven years later, David remembered my composition--much to my amazement. He programmed one of my early pieces, The Infernal Machine, and commissioned Gorgon.

CP: And he brought you back to Baltimore?

CR: Yes, when he took over the BSO, he remembered I was a Baltimorean, so he asked for me to be his composer-in-residence here. I did that for three years, and even after I left in '89 I was the new-music adviser, looking through new compositions and passing along to David the ones that I thought he'd be interested in. I did that until the [Yuri] Temirkanov era, when, well, there no longer seemed a need for a new-music adviser.

CP: But Marin Alsop is very much in the Zinman mode, isn't she?

CR: There are a lot of similarities. They're both very well-grounded in the standard repertoire, but they have real commitment to both American music and new music. There's an excitement about the way they make music, the way they plan a season, the way they get involved with the community and try to make the orchestra integral to the city. They're full of ideas and always examining old habits to see if they might be changed for the better.

CP: What have you been writing recently?

CR: I've been doing a lot of different things. The last thing I finished, my first ballet, was very neo-classical. But the piece I'm working on now, the Concerto for Orchestra, has a lot of dissonance, not a lot of triads. I'm writing it for Marin--she will premiere it this summer at the Cabrillo Festival in California, then she'll do it with the BSO in November. I don't want to be one of those composers who's known for just one thing, so I want to try a lot of different styles.

Christopher Rouse discusses his work as part of the "Composers in Conversation" series at Theatre Project March 5. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marin Alsop, performs Rouse's Flute Concerto March 7-9 at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

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