I first became aware of Baltimore-born composer Christopher Rouse when the Fort Wayne Philharmonic played one of his pieces a few years backů and why shouldn't they? In addition to being one of the noisiest American composers around, his approachable neo-classical-modern style has led to his pieces being some of the most often played of any living composer. By taking melodic and structural elements from the Classical period and mixing in the expressive, demanding, and shocking changes of the Modern era, Rouse manages to create music that is accessible yet discomforting, crushing the common notion among the inexperienced that classical music is a soothing sedative.
Passion Wheels is a collection of four Rouse compositions that were premiered between 1976 and 1990. Known for his raucous use of percussion, the disc opens and closes with two short pieces for small percussion ensemble, Ku-Ka-Ilimoku and Ogoun Badagris, respectively. Inspired by Hawaiian tribal dances, Ku-Ka-Ilimoku is an athletic war dance full of pounding poly-rhythms. The violent Ogoun Badagris is named for a bloodthirsty Haitan god, brutally depicting a human sacrifice ceremony.
The title track, Rotae Passionis, is a chamber piece for flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin, viola, and cello whose three movements tell the last days of Christ, often in horrific terms. The first movement, depicting Christ's human doubts and fears, is essentially an anguished concerto for clarinet, bravely and remarkably played by Allen Kay. The vicious second movement is an agonizing tour of the fourteen stations of the cross, often torturing the musician as much as the listener with sadistic technical demands. After the whirlwind passes, the third movement is a welcome respite, depicting Christ's slumber into death with fragmented yet tender music.
Saving the best for last is my personal favorite, Concerto per Corde, a tribute to Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Originally a string quartet, Rouse reworked the piece into an intensely personal composition. With a chillingly bare string sound that owes much to Bernard Herrmann's score for Psycho, the piece begins with unsettling and morbid passages played by strings pushed to the edge. The connected second movement screeches past in a fury of expressed rage guaranteed to quicken your pulse with agitated rhythms that conjure up nightmarish visions of Bartok. The final movement begins in eerie, cold desolation, frighteningly pale with tension. Over the course of ten minutes, the music slowly warms and the tension subsides, ending with a placid, Disney-esque melody as if the composer has slowly come to grips with his demons.
Refreshingly original while remaining amicable, the music of Christopher Rouse is the cleansing yet shocking coffee enema needed to jolt classical music listeners out of their doldrums.
This review first appeared in WhatzUp, February 2002.