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The Second Summer Release from the Nashville Symphony

Three weeks after cancelling the 20/21 season, the Nashville Symphony released a new recording featuring the music of the Grammy and Pulitzer Prize winning composer Christopher Rouse. This recording, the 21st for the Nashville Symphony under Naxos’ American Classics label, is a welcome addition to the fruitful collaboration between the Nashville Symphony and American composers. This is the second installment of a trio of recordings to be released this summer: Aaron Jay Kernis’ Color Wheel released in June, this Christopher Rouse feature, and Tobias Picker’s Opera Without Words scheduled for release in August. Under the direction of Music Director Giancarlo Guerrero, the CD was recorded over a series of live concerts in 2017 and 2019 and features a triptych of Rouse’s works: Symphony No. 5 (2015), Supplica (2013), and Concerto for Orchestra (2008). These three works make an excellent grouping as they highlight the power, energy, and color that Rouse brings to his orchestral work.

Rouse’s Symphony No. 5 was a joint commission between the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Aspen Music Festival, and our own Nashville Symphony. Rouse completed the work in 2015 and it was premiered by Jaap van Zweden and the Dallas Symphony in 2017. For Rouse, his own 5th symphony has deep connections to Beethoven’s 5th. In the liner notes of the CD, Thomas May quotes Rouse on this relationship: “The first piece of ‘classical music’ I remember hearing was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony . . . and I remember thinking that a whole new world was opening up to me. I decided that I wanted to become a composer. So when it came time for me to composer my own Fifth Symphony, my thoughts returned fondly to that time, and I resolved to tip my cap to Beethoven’s mighty symphony.”

Although Rouse is indebted to Beethoven’s work in the symphonic genre, this piece is not a cheap re-telling of Beethoven’s symphony. Rouse composes surely in his own musical language. Sure, the very opening of Rouse’s symphony mimics Beethoven’s famous four-note motif with power and intensity, but Rouse quickly moves in quite a different direction. Rouse dashes between competing themes, rhythms, and orchestrations in this highly technical score. Although there are a few moments of muddiness, the Nashville Symphony brings this score to life in a vivid and spirited way.

The following piece, Supplica, offers a slow counterweight to the outer ends. It is a slow, single movement work completed in 2013 as a joint commission by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the Pacific Symphony. The work’s title is the Italian word for “supplication” and with this piece Rouse offers up a humble, yet deeply affecting prayer. Scored for a small orchestra of brass, harp, and strings, the piece lasts twelve minutes. Asked by Guerrero about the small instrumentation, Rouse responds

why use instruments I don’t need?”

With this pared down orchestration Rouse is quickly able to draw you into his prayer. Intimate strings, led by concertmaster Jun Iwasaki, plead and hope upwards, yet it is an entreaty colored with sadness. Guerrero masterfully draws out meaning behind long climbing melodies that lead to a climax of brass and strings. The Nashville Symphony’s fantastically full gamut of dynamics and tone quality is present in this piece. It seems as if the Schermerhorn and its’ beautiful acoustics were built for this piece. The piece ends unresolved, perhaps waiting for an answer from above. Rouse has been reticent to speak on the meaning behind Supplica. Although in a video interview with the Nashville Symphony he says:“I consider composers savers of souls. If a priest, let’s say, is a saver of souls for the next life, I think that composers, and other creative artists, are savers of souls in this life. We can really have an impact, we can entertain, but we can console, heal, enlighten, and anger. We can do all sorts of things to those who experience our music, and that to me is the power that Classical music, in particular because it goes really to the very depths of the deepest part of the human experience.”

The last offering on this record is the Concerto for Orchestra. Christopher Rouse is no stranger to the concerto, he has written twelve instrumental concertos including his 1991 Trombone Concerto which won the Pulitzer Prize for Music. This is the first recording of Rouse’s Concerto for Orchestra. The idea of a concerto for the orchestra reached fruition when Béla Bartók wrote his own Concerto for Orchestra in 1943. Since then numerous 20th and 21st century composers have found the form to be ripe for wonderful musical possibilities, Rouse included.

Rouse has written that the work is divided into “connected halves (the term being used loosely).” The first half is made up of five alternating fast and slow sections while the second half contains a slower and faster part that develops material from the earlier half. As the thought of a concerto would imply, this piece is incredibly complex with immense technical and musical demands. There are juxtapositions throughout: instrumental families fighting each other, unstable poly-rhythms struggling against a steady beat, and tempi that lead to a manic climax, all of which prove to be no match for the Nashville Symphony. Guerrero brings this score to life and showcases the Nashville Symphony’s full abilities with this piece.

Overall, this recording is a great tribute to Christopher Rouse and another feather in the Nashville Symphony’s cap.  It is my understanding that Rouse was at many of the rehearsals and concerts for these live recordings, and is the last recording made under his supervision. Although this recording is superb, it really is no match to hearing the Nashville Symphony live, and I look forward to when that option is available again.

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