Christopher Rouse - Composer

Press and Program Notes


Clarinet Concerto

Program Note by the Composer

I completed my clarinet concerto in Pittsford, New York on December 11, 2000. Commissioned for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and its principal clarinetist Larry Combs and funded by the Institute for American Music, it is a work that has taken me longer to compose than has any other score of mine to date.

In the piece that immediately preceded it, Rapture, I had written music that attempted to project a sense of spiritual ecstasy, and the harmonic language of this work is almost entirely tonal. As a result, I felt the need in the clarinet concerto to move in a different direction -- I have never felt the attraction of repeating myself endlessly and formulaically and like to try to "reinvent" myself from time to time.

My first decision was to make the music more chromatic and "prickly" than I had in Rapture and other recent compositions and on that basis elected to cast the piece as a comparatively brief (nineteen minute) one. Having already composed concerti in two, three, four, and five movements, I also decided to try my hand at realizing a one-movement form.

My final act of "reinvention" was, for the first time since my early undergraduate student days, to employ elements of randomness and indeterminacy in the composing of the work. Interjected in my concerto at three points are short three-movement "microconcerti," their point of interpolation determined by random processes. These microconcerti have a more discernibly "classical" cast to them, and they increasingly have recourse to tonality; each is also approximately half the length of its predecessor.

Beyond the surprises provided by the unexpected infusions of the microconcerto passages, I wanted the entire score to have a sense of unpredictability. Moods change rapidly and usually without preparation, and the demands placed upon the soloist require almost heroic efforts on his part. Though there are spells of lyrical playing, much more time is spent with the clarinetist demonstrating his dexterity and his instrument's agility.

The concerto is dedicated to my dear friend and colleague, Augusta Read Thomas.

Christopher Rouse

Chicago Tribune

John von Rhein

"Christopher Rouse is an amiable, rumpled bear of a man who writes anything but amiable music — at least not amiable in the sense of New Age, easy-listening platitudes an audience can take a warm bath in. Whether you like his music or not, he is one of the more genuinely original composers working in American academia today.

"His music speaks of now, in bold, exuberant, manic, at times raucous terms that reflect the world in which we live. We shouldn't be surprised by the pile-driving dynamics and rhythms of rock that leap from his scores. Nor should we be surprised that his musical language seems ever in a state of flux, reinventing itself in unpredictable ways.

"Rouse's Clarinet Concerto, which had its world premiere by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach [May 17, 2001] at Symphony Center, is such a piece. The concerto, completed late last year, was commissioned for the CSO by the Hanson Institute for American Music at the Eastman School of Music. It is the latest in a notable series of Rouse concertos, for violin, cello, piano, trombone and guitar.

"Just as this music tests the virtuosity of the soloist — in this case, the astonishing Larry Combs, the CSO's principal clarinet — to the limit, so does it dare the audience to hang on tight as it takes them on the high-energy roller-coaster ride of their lives.

"...It's not music for the faint of heart, or ear. It socks you in the gut. But, in a curious way, its very sonic audacity validates it as musical art.

"...However assaulted some more conservative listeners felt they were by the concerto, they gave its composer a more than decent reception — no boos — when he finally came onstage."

Chicago Sun-Times

Wynne Delacoma

Rouse takes CSO on wild ride

"Composer Christopher Rouse wanted to do something completely different.

"Something different, that is, from the work he did immediately before tackling the concerto he wrote for Larry Combs, principal clarinet for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

"To really understand where this piece comes from," said Rouse, a man who is quick with a laugh, even when discussing complex points of musical composition, "we have to talk about the piece that came before this, Rapture, which I wrote for the Pittsburgh Symphony.

"In that piece I ended up going about as far off on one of the branches of the musical tree as I could. It's extremely tonal. It's in C major until the end. After that was over, I felt the next piece had to be something as far removed as it could be--the `Unrapture,' you might say--because I didn't want to stay in that area forever."

"Rouse, 52, whose Trombone Concerto won a 1993 Pulitzer Prize, has moved through various musical areas since he decided as a 6-year-old growing up in Baltimore that he wanted to be a composer. He loved rock as well as classical music, and rock has influenced many of his compositions.

"A lot of my music is known for being very fast and loud," said Rouse, "though a lot of it isn't that way. I never thought of that as a rock influence, but a lot of other people think that it is. So maybe that's so."

"The Clarinet Concerto, which receives its world premiere [May 17, 2001] at Symphony Center, isn't just fast--it's 19 minutes of virtually nonstop, virtuoso playing for Combs. Its roots go back to another iconic development of the 1950s, TV game shows. For reasons Rouse can't explain, he was inspired by the '50s show Beat the Clock, in which contestants rushed to complete silly tasks as a clock ticked off the seconds.

"The idea of people having this kind of frantic activity, trying to do something ridiculous in 40 seconds or whatever, was part of my thinking," Rouse said. "The piece ends up, on one level, being wild and frenetic and crazy and unpredictable."

"Combs is taking Rouse's craziness in stride, though "it's probably the most difficult thing I've tried to play as far as a solo concerto."

"But Combs admits that he asked for trouble. "I told [Rouse] to feel free to make it as difficult as possible, and I'd work very hard on it," he said. "I've had the time to get it into the fingers well enough that I think I can just enjoy it."

"It was the same feeling I had when I got John Corigliano's concerto," he said, referring to the work that Combs introduced in the CSO's 1982-83 season. "I first thought, `I can't do that.' But then I figured it out."

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