CSO gives world premiere of Rouse trumpet concerto, which is mostly big and sort of loud
By Andrew Patner December 21, 2012 1:34PM
Conductor Jaap van Zweden (undated handout pix)
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan
Info: (312) 294-3000, cso.org
Updated: January 23, 2013 6:08AM
The Midwest Clinic and its thousands of brass teachers, band conductors and students are in town for their annual gathering this week, but there’s no stand-alone brass offering at Symphony Center for them this year. Instead, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra cagily programmed a week based in large part on its fabled brass sections and players.
Guest conductor Jaap van Zweden shares CSO music director Riccardo Muti’s interest in neglected pieces and has strong skills in preparing and presenting new works, so brass hunger could be served in novel ways: with an upbeat Shostakovich fanfare overture having its first CSO subscription performances, a monumental Tchaikovsky symphony not played here in 29 years and a world premiere American trumpet concerto showcasing the CSO’s superb first chair player as soloist and a full array of his brass colleagues.
What was intriguing on paper was certainly well executed throughout. The Dutch-born ban Zweden, in his fifth year as music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and first season leading the Hong Kong Philharmonic, started the virtuoso CSO in appropriate overdrive Thursday at Symphony Center with the 1954 “Festive” Overture, a piece of jolly caricature that could hold its own accompanying a Vegas floor show. Tchaikovsky’s 1885 “Manfred” Symphony was given the same focus and authority shown his more revered compositions — and has two cornets. Christopher Rouse’s brand-new “Heimdall’s Trumpet” offered another demonstration that there’s nothing that CSO principal Christopher Martin cannot do — and that he cannot do musically and beautifully — while also demonstrating Rouse’s own proficiency as an orchestrator (and here adding two bass trumpets (!) for the trombone section to play). Conductor and orchestra offered the score as if they had known it for years.
But how was the music itself? Not, I’m afraid, to my taste. The Shostakovich is part joke, part party piece. The Tchaikovsky is ... well, as one subscriber observed, “a lot of pure Tchaikovsky, nearly an hour of chunks of Drama! Mournfulness! Recurring Themes! But assembled haphazardly and with no sense of line or development. ‘Swan Lake’ lost in the Bernese Alps.” And not even in Tchaikovsky’s own form, but in the edition by late 20th century Russian conductor Yevgeny Svetlanov, which, among other things, cuts the organ finale and slaps the end of the first movement in its place. Program annotator Daniel Jaffe tells us that this makes the work “far more faithful to the spirit of Byron’s original” dramatic poem. Perhaps so. But we were there to hear Tchaikovsky, for good or ill.
There are times where Rouse, 63, seems to be a purveyor of a Big and Loud Music Store. A fan of rock music, especially Led Zeppelin’s late alcohol-overdose drummer John Bonham and late Moby Grape guitarist and drug burnout Skip Spence, each of whom he has written works about,he also is a master of orchestral sound and effects and of technical challenges to solo players. He’s a leader of the current music establishment, with posts at Eastman and Juilliard, and a generous mentor to colleagues and students from Augusta Read Thomas to Nico Muhly.
The 20-minute “Heimdall’s Trumpet” is neither as loud nor as grinding as some of Rouse’s other concertos. It even includes quite beautiful, peaceful sections with no brass or winds, just the strings communing with the soloist as if in a slow-rolling Gorecki work. But other than testing the range of its soloist (lots of pedal tones, the lowest possible on the instrument) and his stamina, the almost non-stop leading part seems to be a kind of looping of Ives’ “Unanswered Question” or Copland’s “Quiet City” with occasional shots of amphetamines. Hats off to the Edward F. Schmidt Family Commissioning Fund for bringing us so many new orchestral works over the years. I wish that I had found the piece as interesting or pleasing as the audience seemingly did.
Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).