Review: Christopher Rouse Leaves a Haunting Final Symphony

CINCINNATI — “I am known for writing very dark, disturbing music,” the composer Christopher Rouse, who died last month at 70, once said. “It just happened that every time I had a piece to write, somebody died whose death had a big effect on me.”

When the time came to write his Symphony No. 6, which received its posthumous premiere on Friday with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, he again returned to the subject of death — though, as he wrote in a program note typed from bed in hospice care, “in this event it is my own.”

Mr. Rouse — one of the great American composers of our time, admired by audiences and fellow artists alike — had been suffering from renal cancer, and treated the symphony as his final musical statement. He typically signed off his scores with the Latin phrase “Deo gratias,” or “thanks be to God.” But under the final bar of the Sixth Symphony, he wrote “Finis”: the end.

It’s a haunting and profound farewell, though not one of maudlin anguish or tearfulness. If you listen closely enough, all of Mr. Rouse — contemplative elegy, rowdy playfulness, eclectic homage — is in this score, masterfully orchestrated and transparently rendered. Twenty-five minutes long, it has the sweep of Mahler but the concision of poetry. The Sixth, like its composer, is also extremely likable: warmly received by the audience at Music Hall here, as I imagine it would be anywhere else.

The piece was commissioned for the Cincinnati Symphony’s 125th anniversary season. Louis Langrée, the orchestra’s music director, who led a sensitive and committed performance, said from the stage at a second go on Saturday that you would expect something celebratory and flamboyant for an anniversary. So he admitted to being at first confused by the work’s tone.

“And now,” he told the audience, “we know why.”

Mr. Rouse, after all, had been private about his illness. His initial program note about the symphony was focused more on technique than emotion. But then he wrote another, of heartfelt candor, from his hospice bed; it was made available after his death and printed as an insert in the program book in Cincinnati.

In both notes, he writes about what his Sixth Symphony shares with Mahler’s Ninth: mainly, a four-movement structure in which two boisterous inner movements are sandwiched between a slow opening and finale.

Such an explicit reference is hardly unusual for Mr. Rouse, whose output is like an Easter egg hunt of music history. Among the composers he’s tipped his hat to are Bruckner, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Wagner. His Fifth Symphony brazenly courted comparisons with Beethoven’s.

This often meant an unapologetic embrace of tonality, which Mr. Rouse’s critics pointed to as a streak of conservatism. I don’t find that fair. His music is diverse — tender and spare, cacophonous and atonal — and he seems to have followed his intuition to let every piece simply be what it must. (Anyone looking for a Rouse primer should listen to a recent tribute on the conductor Joshua Weilerstein’s podcast “Sticky Notes.”)

Mr. Rouse’s final symphony is often tonal, directly stated and taut, with an uncanny timelessness. Hearing it, you might know it’s from the past 100 years, though you would have a hard time saying exactly when. There are fleeting suggestions of Mahler, but no quotations.

Symphony No. 6: Opening

An excerpt from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s premiere of the work.

It opens quietly, with a haze of high strings and a despairing theme delivered by a flugelhorn — Mr. Rouse was a fan of using at least one unusual instrument per work — that lands, in Mahlerian fashion, on a note doubled by a harp in lower octaves. The movement continues slowly, building (like Ravel’s “Boléro,” which opened the program) toward a climax that wields the full forces of the orchestra. But the burst fades as quickly as it arrived, leaving only that same sad flugelhorn tune in its dust.

Rouse’s Symphony No. 6: Inner Movements

An excerpt from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s premiere of the work.

The symphony continues without pause to a playfully macabre second movement, followed by an explosive third in which the percussionists seem to log a mile in steps as they restlessly move among their instruments. But the mood of the opening returns for the fourth movement, whose final passages are ephemeral and varied — expressing awe and glistening serenity, but also uncertainty and pain — over a low-E drone in the basses. Mr. Rouse, in his program remarks, refers to that long-sustained note as a lifeline that continues and continues, until it stops.

When it does stop, it does so abruptly, cut off by a gong whose resonance lingers, like a dissipating breath. At the premiere, Mr. Langrée kept his baton raised ambiguously — neither high enough to hold off audience applause, nor low enough to indicate that the piece had ended — as if unwilling to let go entirely, and wanting to offer a moment of silence to a composer who had just delivered his own eulogy.

Christopher Rouse: Symphony No. 6

Performed on Friday and Saturday at Music Hall, Cincinnati.

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