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April 8, 1997

Modern Composers

[Music of] Christopher Rouse. Trombone Concerto; Gorgon; Iscariot. Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop, conductor. (RCA Victor Red Seal, CD # 09026-68410-2) 1977.

This new album from RCA contains the world-premiere recordings of three works by American composer Christopher Rouse (b. 1949), including the 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning "Trombone Concerto." Rouse's work is marked by contrasts, and Rouse himself seems to embody a number of contrasts and seeming contradictions. His work is often marked by "brutal dissonance, fiendish tempos, [and] gruesome subject matter," yet he says that "the high point of the year" for him and his family is their annual trip to Disney World. He is a professor of composition at Eastman School of Music, and also teaches a course in the history of rock. His music is strongly influenced by rock and roll, but frequently expresses themes of death, loss, and grief.

Rouse says that he sees the role of the artist in modern society as providing "a kind of spiritual nourishment and healing that isn't really available anyplace else." Artists, he says, are society's "healers and enlighteners [and] savers of souls, maybe not in the next world, but in this one." His 1989 work "Iscariot" is a good example of music as spiritual healing. Rouse says this is his "most autobiographical piece," written "to purge certain emotional memories from [his] system." The title connotes betrayal, and the final section quotes Bach's chorale Es ist genug -- "it is enough." Rouse is guarded about specifics, but "Iscariot" plainly represents a process of healing or catharsis for him, and perhaps for listeners as well.

Rouse's Trombone Concerto, from 1992, is dedicated to the memory of Leonard Bernstein, and incorporates part of Bernstein's Third Symphony "Kaddish," or prayer for the dead. The beginning section is painfully deep, dark, and slow. Gradually the solo trombone gains its voice and moves into a range that is more comfortable for both player and listener. Rouse says that the credo theme from Bernstein's Kaddish represents "always striving for an elusive God." It is as profound a statement of anguished and near-hopeless striving as can be found in contemporary music.

"Gorgon," from 1984, is stylistically the opposite of the Trombone Concerto. It is written in three main sections, representing the three gorgon sisters of Greek myth, separated by short percussion sections representing Perseus, the killer of Medusa, the only mortal gorgon. The album's liner notes claim that this work is "an attempt to take Rouse's attraction towards fast, loud and wild music to its terrifying ultimate.... [I]t asks us to confront our fears,...[b]ut the effect is of cathartic exhilaration...[and] the self-awareness that can follow any dance with danger."

Even the darkest and slowest-moving of Rouse's music features a variety of percussion instruments as prominent elements, and this is emphatically true of "Gorgon." (The production notes for the album list credits for wind machine and thunder sheet.) The piece begins with a bang -- in fact a series of bangs -- and never relents in its percussive, confrontational assault on the listener. "Gorgon" picks up the listener willi-nilli in a high- speed musical roller-coaster ride, and when it's over you want to buy another ticket and go around again.

You can hear Gorgon by Christopher Rouse on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, April 17 at 7:30 PM as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950. 17:16

-- J. Green

The Harbinger, Mobile, AL