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CSO’s new concerto sounds a brass note

Christopher Rouse
New York City
April 2005

Christopher Rouse New York City April 2005

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Chicago Symphony Orchestra

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Updated: January 17, 2013 6:22AM

While composers of all stripes have written dozens of concertos for the violin, piano and cello, the trumpet has not been so lucky.

Aside from Haydn’s famous Trumpet Concerto and a few others by notable Baroque composers, the trumpet has gotten little in the way of star treatment.

That probably explains in part why, when the leaders of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra commissioned Christopher Rouse to write a new piece for the 2012-13 season, they opted for a trumpet concerto.

Just as important, though, was the desire to showcase Christopher Martin, who was appointed the CSO’s principal trumpet in 2005.

He will be the soloist when the resulting 20-minute work, titled “Heimdall’s Trumpet,” receives its world premiere at this week’s CSO subscription concerts Thursday through Dec. 22 at Symphony Center.

Picking Rouse was hardly a stretch. A Baltimore native who recently began a two-year stint as composer-in-residence with the New York Philharmonic, he’s one of this country’s most admired composers.

At ease with his knowledge of the trumpet, he eschewed any special research into the instrument’s capabilities and just dove into writing the piece.

“Usually when I’m writing for most instruments, I feel comfortable enough so that I can pretty much do it on my own,” he said. “Then if there is something that is a little too ornery [for the soloist] and needs to be redone, I’ll certainly do that after the piece is finished.”

The piece’s title refers to the Nordic god Heimdall, whose trumpet blasts were believed to announce the beginning of Ragnarok, a kind of Armegeddon.

Sometimes Rouse writes concertos with a more or less traditional structure, but in other cases, he likes to give them a freer-form, programmatic character with the soloist representing a kind of character.

“Heimdall’s Trumpet” falls into the latter category. Wanting a figure associated with the trumpet, he thought of the Nordic god. The story does not really come into play until the fourth movement, when the soloist essentially takes on the role of the mythological trumpeter and makes his prophetic blast.

“I imagine it as maybe what it would be in a nuclear blast,” he said. “One pow that lasts for a second and then silence.”

Rouse gave the music a Norse character, drawing on the haunting obsessiveness of contemporary Scandinavian music and Richard Wagner’s evocations of the region and its people.

“Harmonically, sometimes it’s very tonal and sometimes it’s very not tonal,” Rouse said. “So it’s kind of sliding to and from those extremes. And of course, you want to write a piece that makes the soloist look good and that gives him a chance to show off a bit.”

The veteran composer has written more than 45 works. Two of the most performed are his Flute Concerto (1993) and an 11-minute orchestral work titled “Rapture” (2000), which one critic described as “emphatic display of virtuosic scoring.”

Much of his music is marked by extremes in mood and volume, with loud, clamorous, even ferocious moments.

“To me,” Rouse said, “the worst thing is boring the listener, to write something that’s just kind of namby-pamby — correct but has no oomph to it all, no intensity, no expressive commitment. That doesn’t interest me.”

Financially secure and respected in the classical music world, Rouse, 65, professes to have little concern about his legacy. “I really don’t give much thought to that,” he said. “I figure that it’s out of my control.”

He noted that once-prominent 20th-century American composers, such as Walter Piston and William Schuman, are largely forgotten now.

“So that might happen in my case,” he said. “It might not. I just don’t know.”

Kyle MacMillan is a locally based free-lance writer.

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