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Mr. Rouse Wakes Up The Dead

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
05/05/2014 -  
“Spring For Music” Presents:
Christopher Rouse: Requiem (New York Premiere)

Jacques Imbrailo (Baritone)
Westminster Symphonic Choir, Joe Miller (Conductor), Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Dianne Berkun-Menaker (Artistic Director), New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (Music Director/Conductor)

C. Rouse (© Courtesy of the Artist)

Like the sweet little boy who’s actually a serial murderer, that modest gentleman Christopher Rouse shatters everything he puts his notes to. To mix the floral metaphors, rather than a shrinking violet hiding his emotions behind atonal equations, he gilds whatever lily he might plant, with plenty of brass, drums, tambourines, cymbals and everything else he can find in his personal old curiosity shop.

Thus, it was hardly a surprise that the introduction to the Agnus Dei section of his Requiem last night, a section usually soothing with women’s voices and strings, he let the brass section of the New York Philharmonic go crazy, that even the most sensitive poetry was accompanied by weird squeals, and that the Dies Irae sounds made the same section by Berlioz seem like a lullaby.

How much is behind that wall of sound is up to the listener to decide. Mr. Rouse does confess that Hector Berlioz is one of his personal inspirations, and that this piece, commissioned by Soli Deo Gloria, for their 20th Anniversary, was written for the 200th anniversary of Berlioz’s birth. He was equally inspired, though, by the form of the Britten War Requiem, presented here by the Atlanta Symphony only last week. Mr. Rouse, whose literary sagacity is as great as his orchestral mastery, chose wisely, interpolating the most doleful, beautiful poetry of Michelangelo (to which Shostakovich had composed such moving music) to the late Seamus Heaney, Siegfried Sassoon, and a poem by the Elizabethan Ben Jonson about the death of his own son.

Like Britten, Mr. Rouse used a form of the Requiem Mass, specifically the verses used by Berlioz himself. Those words were voiced by the grand Westminster Symphonic Choir, in overpowering verses. In the first half of the work (for some reason, we had an intermission, though I don’t know if Mr. Rouse had approved that), the chorus sung loudly, clearly, dissonantly. I couldn’t make out too many of the words, but we all knew the trumpet was sounding, the Lord should have mercy upon us, the world will be consumed in ashes, and we should be rescued from the fires.

Frankly, at this first hearing, I couldn’t make out any subtle differences in the various parts. The choir was as shattering and loud as the orchestra, the booming of the kettledrums, the calls from the lower brass (Mr. Rouse had a love affair with the deepest notes of trombones and tubas), and the sheer volume of sounds would have been enough to make even God say, “Hey, wait a sec, I need a few moments to get My ears straightened out.”

The few interludes came with the splendid South African baritone Jacques Imbrailo, who started the Requiem without accompaniment at all, in Seamus Heamey’s most devastating poem, of a child returning from school because his four-year-old brother had been killed by a car. The lines were lean, heavy, with a few measures in unearthly high notes.

Those sung poems all dealt, rightly, with death. Not the ceremonial death of the Latin Requiem, but death felt with passionate individuality. This was the mastery of the Rouse concept. Even the poetry of Britten’s War Requiem, with its mourning for those killed in battle, had a kind of “collectivist” mourning, for “those” (not “him” or “her”) that were killed on the battlefield.

Mr. Rouse was far more personal in his poetry. Heaney’s grief, John Milton’s dream of death, verses by the American hymnologist John Ellerton, and two lamentations by Michaelangelo, the latter actually offering few rays of light into the shade. “No death controls,” he wrote, “Taking one soul alone, I am not dead.”

Yet it was the chorus, which sung this first half at full volume, which made this first half almost unlistenable. Not for the volume but because there seemed little to differentiate one verse from another. Yes, it was a cry for help, but in a Requiem, one needs the pause, the breath, the tearful looking around to hear just how terrible are these aspects of death.

The second half offered some solace–and Mr. Rouse’s inspiration here was a thing of sensitivity and utmost beauty. For along with the Latin were verses by Reverend Ellington and the Sixteenth Century hymn, “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming”, both dealing with life coming from death.

Here, the dissonance of the first half was transformed into the so-American Anglo-American psalmody, into the 18th Century harmonies of William Billings and his Massachusetts colleagues. More than a musical change, Mr. Rouse had turned over a whole period of death and fire into the American calls for some kind of light, for a Fate which was not necessarily fatal. And when the Westminster group, instead of singing as one, produced waves of sound, one upon another, it was religiously inspiring.

Into this the lovely Brooklyn Youth Chorus, who had been dazzling in the Britten last week, was equally glorious up in the balcony, both by themselves and with the finale, a finale which–like the Britten–included the whole shebang: orchestra, baritone, the full choir, the Youth Chorus.

With Rouse’s brilliance, all which had been disconcerting, unsettling before, was now, if not settled, then at least brought to a satisfactory end. Quiet, hopeful, and even with everybody involved, isolated and alone.

Conductor Alan Gilbert conducted this New York premiere with his usual aplomb, care and actual excitement. Without that excitement, in fact, the Rouse Requiem might have been a lament only for the dead, rather than the very living participants.


CODA: This was the rather unusual beginning for Carnegie Hall’s “Spring For Music” week, a poor pun but with the best of intentions, where visiting orchestras from North America and Canada come to town with very singular programs demonstrating their own singularity. Granted the New York Philharmonic came visiting from exactly seven blocks to the north, from Lincoln Center to Carnegie Hall, but others this week will come from the barren tundras of Winnipeg, the coffee-drunk region of Seattle, and Rochester, in the still unexplored wasteland of New York State.

New York, though, celebrated by waving scarves, and applauding the words of Alec Baldwin. Mr. Baldwin has had some nasty words about New York these days, but his love for the Philharmonic is unquestioned, and his aid unstinting.

It was a helluva way to celebrate a Requiem Mass, but New Yorkers took this, as well as the commanding forces of Mr. Rouse’s Requiem, all in their considerable stride.

Harry Rolnick



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