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Monday, July 18, 2016

Christopher Rouse, Odna Zhizn, Symphony Nos. 3 & 4, Prospero's Rooms

North American composer Christopher Rouse has increasingly won a space in my listening rounds as one of the most original and lucid creators of orchestral music. With the release of Odna Zhizn, Symphonies 3 & 4, and Prospero's Rooms (DaCapo 8.226110) as recorded by the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert, we hear some beautifully modern compositions that bring Rouse climactically hurdling over his blossoming sound palette, with four exceptional works played rousingly well, in a program full of passion and zeal.

Rouse was the Philharmonic's Marie-Josee Kravis Composer-in-Residence for 2012-15. "Symphony No. 4" (2013) and "Prospero's Rooms" (2012) come out of that residency. "Symphony No. 3" (2011) was first performed by the orchestra in 2013 and "Odna Zhizn" (2008) was commissioned and premiered by the orchestra, so all four have a direct and intimate connection with Gilbert and the NYP.

It is no surprise then that all of the works get definitive and exciting performances on this release.

"Symphony No. 3" is modelled after Prokofiev's rather underrated "Symphony No. 2," a brashly motored and bittersweet work of his early period. If you were not tipped off about this in advance, you would not detect the close connection, because Rouse parallels the Prokofiev and makes his own personal musical analogue with little use of quotes as the basis for the new work.

"Odna zhizn" means "a life" in Russian. It was composed by Rouse "in homage to a person of Russian ancestry who is very dear to me," in his words. Since the life of the person in question has been subject to some turbulence, so too the music is at times unsettled and dynamically stirring. Virtually all of the music takes important names and phrases associated with the Russian woman and directly codes them in terms of notes and sometimes duration. But one does not need a decoder to appreciate the extraordinary flow and excitement of the music. It is surely an orchestral tour de force, one of the most exciting and memorable short contemporary orchestral works I have heard recently, a classic of this very moment.

"Symphony No. 4" is programmatic in its basis, though Rouse prefers not to reveal the actual nature of the program. It is of no matter to us however, as the music speaks with a loquaciousness, a deep expressivity that in the end need not be pinned down to words or story lines.

"Prospero's Rooms" closes out the program. It is loosely based on Poe's story about a Prince (Prospero) who invites a gathering to a ball in his special palace. Each room is of a different color with a stained-glass window correspondingly tinted. The final room, as the Poe story goes, is black with a crimson red window and an infernal clock whose chiming freezes the guests with terror. In the room ultimately appears the Red Death, who kills all in attendance. It is understandably a correspondingly dark and brooding musical work, more concerned with capturing the mood of the tale than furnishing an event-by-event analogy. It forms a fittingly dramatic conclusion to a terrific program.

In the end the four works gives us a considerably revealing look at Rouse today, a true master of orchestration, a poetic magician of modernity, a most expressive and communicative crafter of sound brilliance. Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic capture all the brilliance with an ideal, soundfully exact and exciting set of performances.

This one is essential for those interested in the most modern music. Rouse confirms he is a leading light today in ways that will move you. Molto bravo!

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