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November 9, 2012

BSO gives East Coast premiere of sensational symphony by Christopher Rouse

Baltimore-born Christopher Rouse writes some of the most consistently provocative and rewarding music of our time. A sensational case in point is his Symphony No. 3.

The piece is the product of a global commission from the Saint Louis Symphony, which gave the first performance in 2011; the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which is delivering the East Coast premiere in its latest program; and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and Singapore Symphony.

Rouse’s Third makes a substantial addition to the orchestral repertoire. It leaves you almost reeling — in a good way — from an assault on the senses.

The composer has always been capable of summoning massive orchestral firepower, and he does so here in fiercely aggressive fashion. But he ...

also achieves passages of darkly expressive beauty that get under the skin. Throughout, Rouse’s uncompromising harmonic language, which treats tonal and atonal elements with equal freedom, speaks firmly and directly.

Rouse, whose many credits include a Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award, approaches symphonies from a fascinating angle. He characterizes his First as an homage to Anton Bruckner, his Second to the less well-known Karl Amadeus Hartmann.

For the Third, Rouse turned to yet another eminent composer to create a kind of mirror image — in a parallel universe — of Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 2. Rouse’s score has the same two-movement structure. The first movement opens with a similar brass scream and proceeds to build up startling energy; the second offers a series of variations on a moody theme.

Adding yet another layer to this creative process is the fact that Prokofiev based his Second Symphony on Beethoven’s last piano sonata. So Rouse’s Third Symphony, in a way, encompasses three centuries of musical thought, a pretty cool achievement.

There’s much more than the sincerest form of flattery at work here. Rouse uses the Prokofiev model as a launch pad, not a harness. The similarities between the two scores are fascinating, but it’s not necessary to know anything about that to enjoy the riveting ride.

Rouse was on hand Thursday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall to say a few words to the audience before the performance (“It’s ferocious,” he said of the first movement, “so watch out”), and to receive a pretty hearty ovation afterward. Also in the hall was Rouse’s Gilman School music teacher, John Merrill; the symphony is dedicated to him.

In BSO music director Marin Alsop, the composer has long had a fervent champion. As she told the crowd, she’s the only conductor who has ever led an all-Rouse orchestral program. That was at her Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. Such a program would never sell here, of course — too much modernity is bad for the box office — but Alsop has scheduled a few more Rouse pieces later in the BSO’s season.

The conductor is never more in command than when dealing with a thorny contemporary score. She had Rouse’s Third Symphony firmly in hand on Thursday, seeing to details large and small, maintaining terrific tension, and summoning explosive results from the players.

The piercing notes from the trumpets at the start of the first movement were not all on target, but, after that, the clarity and discipline in the orchestra proved highly impressive as the music was whipped into a frenzy. It was exhilarating to hear these eight minutes of tremendous, relentless energy and volume.

Only a Tchaikovsky-like unison note that ends the movement is a disappointment; after all the bracingly dissonant churning, it seems too easy a solution.

No reservations about the much longer second movement, which begins with a plaintive theme for English horn (played sumptuously by Jane Marvine) and proceeds through five eventful variations.

The kinetic pulse and brilliant instrumental coloring of the first gives way in the second to the darkest, most gorgeous string harmonies this side of Vaughan Williams. A sort of menacing jazz, or jazzy menace, characterizes the third, restless motion the fourth. The fifth conjures an image of mountains looming unnervingly into view.

Alsop had the BSO delivering all of this in exceptional form. The string sections produced a deep tonal richness; woodwinds and brass registered vividly; the percussion had an electrifying presence.

Given the ghost of Beethoven running through the Rouse symphony and the Prokofiev work that inspired it, there was good reason — beyond helping ticket sales — to fill out the program with two popular works by Beethoven.

The Overture to “The Creatures of Prometheus” got the concert started effectively, with plenty of drive from Alsop and particularly lithe, warm-toned playing from the violins.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony received roughly the same sort of lean-and-mean performance Alsop and the BSO gave it four years ago. The high point, interpretively, came in the Andante. The conductor shaped it lovingly and created a great deal of atmosphere, thanks in no small measure to the wonderful pianissimos she coaxed from the ensemble.

The rest of the Fifth made its points neatly and admirably in this fine-tuned performance, but I did miss the extra degree of passion and expressive weight that the BSO produced for guest conductor Markus Stenz last month in Beethoven’s “Eroica.”

The full Beethoven-Rouse program will be repeated Sunday at Meyerhoff Hall. Alsop will also lead an "Off the Cuff' examination and performance of Beethoven's Fifth Friday at Strathmore, Saturday at Meyerhoff.

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:19 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop


It was the first time I'd heard a Rouse piece and I wish I had studied up a bit so as to know what to expect. Ferocious was an understatement. The second movement contained some absolutely stunningly beautiful pieces in it.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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