it seems to be composer Christopher Rouse's goal in life to find ways of forcing a symphony orchestra through the eye of a needle. The improbable attempts, so far, come in two varieties. In the first, he sets up a gentle but persistent coil of sound that feeds on itself as it calmly and deliberately unravels in ribbons, trying to flow through even the tiniest of spaces. In the second, Rouse has lost all patience with the task and deploys his heavy artillery, an army of percussion and brass and winds and strings, anything to beat away until the barrier is breached. The sound is a fearsome thing, aimed straight for the ear with a raw sonic intensity so directed it appears to assume the physical mass of a projectile -- I've witnessed audience members flee a concert hall when that barrage was turned on them.
Rouse has been composer-in-residence at the Baltimore Symphony, won the 1993 Pulitzer for his Trombone Concerto and is a professor of music at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. This latest recording of his music, performed by the Houston Symphony led by Christoph Eschenbach, includes the Symphony No. 2, the Flute Concerto, featuring Carol Wincenc, and "Phaethon."
In recent years Rouse has lost a number of friends to death, and he has tried to translate his grief into his music. The second movement of the
symphony is dedicated to composer Stephen Albert, who died in a car crash in 1992. It is an adagio that shrieks in a rage, a barely contained chaos that the composer fights to ride, until, finally, the moment is spent.
Rouse is a postmodernist magnet of disparate influences, all processed through his powerful symphonic filters. It's tempting, given the awesome sound, to observe that Rouse has found new ways to make noise with an orchestra, and, given his love of rock music (he teaches a class at Eastman on the history of rock), you can trace the influences. But the composer's sensibilities are distinctly symphonic, and he is an accomplished orchestrator. Moreover, in the development of his materials, he
brings in many of the traditional historical arsenals: He writes counterpoint, develops and plays with themes, sets up formal structures and, in the third movement of the five-part concerto, even writes an honest-to-goodness chorale.
Whereas Rouse displays an engaging sense of humor in some of his other works, it's pretty much missing here. The chorale, lovely as it is, commemorates the murder of a 2-year-old boy in England. And "Phaethon," inspired by a Greek myth, is the story of a chariot ride that grows ever more frantic until the chariot is destroyed. In January 1986, as Rouse sat writing the climax, where Zeus' thunderbolt strikes Phaethon down from the sky, he learned of the space shuttle Challenger blowing up -- "Phaethon" is dedicated to the astronauts who died.
The Houston Symphony performances are vividly conceived and confidently played, and Eschenbach is as comfortable letting the long tones hang as he is rolling out the big sound. Wincenc, who commissioned the concerto, does a good job finding contours through Rouse's jagged landscape, and is a compelling medium for the composer's emotional cries.