Composer Rouse writes his epitaph in final masterwork, unveiled in Cincinnati

Fri Oct 18, 2019 at 5:48 pm
Conductor Louis Langrée acknowledges applause after conducting the world premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Symphony No. 6 with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Friday afternoon. Photo. Lee Snow

Cincinnati. One of the country’s most venerable ensembles, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under music director Louis Langrée is marking its 125th season with a game ambition that many American orchestras could well emulate. 

In each of the first five weeks of this anniversary season the orchestra has presented a local or world premiere. Friday morning’s concert at Cincinnati’s Music Hall brought the most significant of these events with the posthumous world premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Symphony No. 6. The much-lauded American composer died last month from complications of renal cancer at the age of 70.

Christopher Rouse was the leading American symphonist of our time. Philip Glass may have written more symphonies (12 and counting) but Rouse’s achievements in the form are more consistent. His five previous symphonies have all enjoyed critical acclaim, most recently his Symphony No. 5, debuted by Jaap van Zweden and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra two years ago.

Christopher Rouse. Photo: Jeffrey Herman

It’s somewhat ironic that Rouse—a Baltimore native—predeceased the first performance of his Sixth Symphony since death has so often haunted his earlier works in the genre. His Symphony No. 1 (1986) is a single movement of roiling power and subdued tragedy with overtones of Wagner and Sibelius. The centerpiece of Rouse’s Second Symphony (1994) is a vast Adagio in memory of his friend and fellow composer Stephen Albert, killed in a car accident just as his career was taking off. And the Fourth (2013) segues from spirited high energy into bleak desolation with chords echoing Siegfried’s Funeral Music from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung.

In his Sixth Symphony, Christopher Rouse has unmistakably written his own epitaph. The composer may have refrained from citing any specific personal meaning in his program note; but from from the very first notes—faltering violin phrases that echo the opening of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony—the sense of last things and leave-taking are consistently manifest. 

As with all of Rouse’s previous symphonies, the Sixth is concise, spanning 26 minutes. For the first time, Rouse’s symphony is cast in four movements rather than his usual three, though the movements are closely interwoven to form a unified whole. 

Also as with Mahler’s Ninth, two slow movements enclose two faster inner sections. Following the halting strings of the opening, an elegiac solo for fluegelhorn appears, which will recur throughout the score, followed by a plaintive passage for oboe. While the tempo is slow and darkly introspective, the music is imbued with a roiling underlying tension, rising twice to cataclysmic climaxes; in between a spare searching bass clarinet sounds. The taps-like fluegelhorn returns to close the first movement.

The second section is brief, mercurial and restless with swaying violin lines in the middle section. The tempo quickens in the third section, which recalls some of the pounding rock edge that has long been a strong Rouse handprint. Jagged brass fragments and timpani dominate in fast, driving music with an angry aggressive punch.

The ire is quelled by gently seesawing double basses, ushering in the final movement. A long lyrical melody of solace appears in the violas, passing to the second, then first violins, the music set off by darkly sepulchral chords from low winds and brass. The alternation builds to a thunderous climax accented by tam-tam. Following one last appearance by the fluegelhorn, the music quietens for the final time; the string lines descend in a long slow decrescendo, becoming slower and ever more hushed until the score ends on a final barely audible percussion note.

Speaking of this final work, the composer said “My main hope is that it will communicate something sincere in meaning to those who hear it.” Christopher Rouse’s Sixth Symphony does that with great feeling, sterling craft and economy and concentrated dramatic impact in a work that should quickly become a repertory standard. Rouse’s Sixth is not only arguably the finest of all his works in the genre but among the handful of truly great symphonies written by an American composer. 

One can hardly imagine stronger or more committed advocacy than that which Langrée and his musicians brought to this world premiere. Individually and as an ensemble, the Cincinnati Symphony’s playing was polished, powerful and unfailingly sensitive throughout—not least the fluegelhorn solos by principal trumpet Robert Sullivan. 

The first half of the concert offered two Spanish-flavored works by French composers.

It was the legendary Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe who gave the first local performance of Edouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole in 1898; two decades later he would become the Cincinnati Symphony’s music director.

Lalo’s glittery Iberian showpiece may not be the most profound concerto ever written, but it’s hard to imagine hearing it ever played better than was done by Guy Braunstein on Friday.

In his pure tone, seamless technique and pristine bravura, one can readily understand why the Israeli violinist was appointed concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic at age 23. (He left the post in 2013 to pursue a solo career.)

Guy Braunstein performed Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole with Louis Langrée and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Lee Snow

Playing his 1679 Francesco Roggieri instrument, Braunstein brought silvery elegance and acutely focused playing to this showpiece, eschewing mere volume and swagger. Most strikingly he underlined the fantasy element with a kind of musing delicacy that was hard to resist; his gleaming pianissimos were gorgeous.

Yet there was ample virtuosity as well, not least in the infectiously insistent finale, thrown off with stylish, understated panache. Langrée and the orchestra were full partners, backing their soloist with equally vivacious and energized support.

The concert led off with Ravel’s inescapable Bolero. Langrée led a rather Gallic performance, emphasizing fluency and unanimity of phrasing in the orchestra’s solos rather than distinctive individual personality. Flutist Randolph Bowman’s elegant playing and saxophonist James Bunte’s bluesy elan livened things up en route to the coda’s crash-and-burn punchline.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday.

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