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A Rouse road where others feared to tread

The Los Angeles Master Chorale will debut composer's daring but difficult Requiem.

March 24, 2007|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

For a while, it looked as if American composer Christopher Rouse's large-scale Requiem might never see the light of day.

"There have literally been at least 10 different performances scheduled, and all have gone the way of the dodo," Rouse said recently from his home in Baltimore. "Music directors are very enthusiastic and commit to it, then show it to their chorus masters who -- when they regain consciousness -- say, 'No, I don't think so.' "

Among the conductors who hoped to premiere the work but proved unable to were Leonard Slatkin, Marin Alsop and Christoph Eschenbach. Things changed, though, when Grant Gershon, music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, got involved.

"After seeing the first page of the score, I was hooked," Gershon said. "I was stunned by what he was going after. The more time I spent on the score, the more I became convinced it was an overwhelming masterpiece.

"Then I learned that if we programmed it in Los Angeles, it would be in fact the world premiere. That iced it."

The Requiem, which is to receive its belated first performance Sunday at Walt Disney Concert Hall, was commissioned to commemorate the 2003 bicentenary of composer Hector Berlioz by Soli Deo Gloria, a Chicago-based organization founded to promote classical sacred music by conductor John Nelson.

Nelson and Rouse, both of whom plan to attend the premiere, are also both Berlioz fans -- although "fanatics" might be the better word.

"Of all the composers, he's the one I feel closest to spiritually," Rouse said. "I almost feel I wrote his music myself sometimes, it speaks so closely to me. He was a crazy, wild guy with a stroke of classicism, a mixture of tradition and innovation."

It was Nelson's idea that Rouse write a Requiem -- a funeral Mass -- just as Berlioz had. "Had they asked for a Te Deum or a setting of the Mass or whatnot, I would have written that," said Rouse, 58, the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize (in 1993, for his Trombone Concerto) and a Grammy Award (in 2002, for "Concert de Gaudi for Guitar and Orchestra").

"I didn't set out to write a piece that was that hard, thinking, 'This is going to make them sweat,' " he said. "I always think about music as a communicative art. I threw myself into this in a way I never have done with anything else. I think it's the best thing I'm capable of writing."

So what makes it so hard?

"The vocal range for the singers is extreme," said Gershon. "There are extended a cappella passages that are very complex harmonically. In this 90-minute piece, the chorus is singing probably more than an hour.

"And the vocal range is extreme as well, from absolutely apocalyptically, cataclysmic screaming in the 'Dies Irae' to the most intimate and pure kinds of almost Renaissance vocalizing. But it's the emotional range of the piece that's the most striking."

Altogether, Gershon said, he has dedicated "more rehearsals to this piece than to any other piece that we've presented since I've been music director."

(To see Gershon talking about the Rouse Requiem, click on

Unfortunately, a plan for the Master Chorale to record the premiere fell through, the conductor said. But plans call for the premiere to be broadcast on KUSC-FM sometime in the future.

Rouse followed Berlioz's Requiem in the selection, editing and ordering of the standard liturgical texts. But he also incorporated poems by Seamus Heaney, Siegfried Sassoon, Ben Jonson, Milton and Michelangelo that will be sung Sunday by baritone Sanford Sylvan.

"The baritone represents a real human being, an Everyman character, reflecting on his own experiences, the death of real loved ones, as part of this large, ritualized Requiem," Rouse said.

Composing the work took him nearly two years, starting from measure one and going straight through to the finish.

"That's how I always work," he said. "I never sketch. I guess I sketch mentally. I do a lot of thought. But once I write it down, it's finished. That could be laziness as much as anything else."

Now that it's finished, he regards it as a summation of his life's work.

"I don't want to call it a valedictory -- I'm not going anywhere any time soon, I hope -- but in no small part, I felt I needed to embrace my whole language, so to speak. It embraces the fist-shaking, violent pieces of the '80s, the darker works of the early '90s and the brighter works in the later '90s. The one thing missing is the pop music element, which pops up from time to time in my music."

Although Rouse was writing the Requiem during Sept. 11, 2001, he doesn't want it linked to the terrorist attacks.

"I was in New York on Sept. 11," he said. "Everyone leaped at the assumption that this would suddenly be a Sept. 11 piece, as I did at first. But I decided not to do that. It just didn't feel right to me.

"What was it Ludwig Wittgenstein said?" he asked, referring to the Austrian-born 20th century philosopher. " 'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.' Sept. 11 was one of those things. It was too enormous for me to feel up to the task of memorializing the event. The Requiem is meant to speak in as universal a way as possible.

"People have so many different feelings about death -- uncertainty, terror, maybe even a sense of serenity or joy, a long-desired release. I hope at the end there's a feeling of acceptance and tranquillity. But on the way, things can get pretty anguished and perhaps a bit terrifying."


Los Angeles Master Chorale

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 7 p.m. Sunday (no late seating)

Price: $19 to $109

Contact: (800) 787-5262 or

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