Technical Extremes and an Emotional Adventure

New York Philharmonic: Christopher Rouse

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center

November 14, 2013, 7:30 pm

The New York premiere of the Oboe Concerto by Christopher Rouse took place at Avery Fisher Hall on November 14 2013. Rouse is currently the Composer-in-Residence at the New York Philharmonic. This piece was composed recently in 2004, and, as a member of the audience, I was struck by its balance between detailed technicality and intense emotion. Christopher Rouse’s Oboe Concerto challenges the audience’s preconceived assumptions about the oboe’s technical capabilities and the understanding of traditional music in relation to the present. With the frequent juxtapositions of sounds, the progression of simple motifs, and the emotive advancement throughout the different movements, the Oboe Concerto personifies the oboe as a hero in a musical narrative of romance and suspense.

The most striking theme in the Oboe Concerto is its persistent use of musical contrast. Through such notable juxtapositions, Rouse emphasizes the unexpected range of the oboe’s abilities while intensifying the tension and surprise of the unfolding musical story. A significant portion of the composition highlights the oboe’s well-known strengths with long, lyrical lines of melody. Such flowing, melismatic phrases are expected from the oboe, but these lyrical phrases greatly clash with ensuing sections of remarkably fast, complicated rhythms. With such quick, staccato melodies, which span from low to very high pitches, Rouse pushes the oboe to its technical extremes.

Rouse is also very conscious of the contrasts between the voices of different instruments. He utilizes these incongruities to fashion the emotional atmosphere and to differentiate the oboe’s sound specifically. For example, the entire orchestra suddenly falls silent in the midst of a lyrical, melismatic movement. A seemingly out-of-place snare drum rolls for a few beats, and then the rest of the orchestra joins to continue with its flowing section. These unexpected bursts occur repeatedly during the piece, with a temple block once and a tambourine another time. At these moments, the audience instinctually laughed quietly or glanced at our friends with a smile. The contrast between the sound of these percussion instruments and the clear, dreamy timbre of the oboe surprised all of us. With such a shared reaction throughout the concert hall, the Oboe Concerto’s cheerful and approachable personality was formed. Highlighting the uniqueness of the oboe’s sound, these unexpected juxtapositions quickly distinguish the oboe’s voice as separate from the rest of the orchestra. This differentiation delegates the oboe as the central character in the emerging narrative. The moments of intense contrast between rhythms and instrumental voices allow Rouse to challenge the oboe’s capabilities while creating an emotional setting for the piece’s narrative.

The utilization of simple motifs throughout the Oboe Concerto provides a harmonic foundation upon which Rouse experiments with the possibilities of previous musical traditions modified for the 21st century. As the concert program describes, the entire composition derives from a 5-note chord, which is played by the string section at the start of the piece. As the intensity of the music grows with tempo changes and transitions into different movements, this chord is transformed within various harmonic and melodic contexts, echoed and altered by diverse voices in the orchestra. This metamorphosis of a simple chord into a complex, multi-layered composition underlines Rouse’s challenging of typical musical traditions by propelling the music into technical intricacies.

Another incidence of the simple motif’s important role occurs in a slow movement of the Oboe Concerto. The oboe repeats and modifies a short melodic phrase, which has a unique harmonic character. It generates a kind of primal-sounding mode that the orchestra adopts. This simple combination of pitches and rhythm indescribably yields a mysteriously ancient and primal aura. The motif does not specifically derive from any particular culture, but it embodies the general impression of primitive music. Commenting on this musical feeling, oboe player Richard Woodhams explains that this motif references the ancient origins of double reed instruments, like the oboe. Rouse reinvents this historical tradition and transforms it into a composition that is unique to the present day. The musical section with this primal motif is followed suddenly by a lively, fast movement that induced the audience to naturally nod our heads to the beat. The extreme energy at this moment in the composition is comparable to a fast-paced rock and roll song, which again pushes the limits on one’s expectations for the oboe. Rouse seamlessly intertwines the musical traditions of the past with the current time’s musical ethos in a stunning success to challenge the genre’s technical boundaries.

The structure of the Oboe Concerto aids in the emotional progression of a suspenseful and romantic narrative. The mirroring opening and closing sections frame the piece with a slow, chordal serenity. The first full movement has a fast tempo, the second is played at a slow pace, and the final movement is fast again. The quick-paced beginning movement sets a dramatic, adventurous setting with loud, short eruptions from the horns and a commanding presence of the oboe’s extremely fast melody, which spans a large range of pitch. This intense accumulation of sound and speed emits an exciting emotional impression of noble confidence in the face of approaching danger. In the following slow movement, the piece transports the listener into a fantasy-like atmosphere. The sweet, dreamy quality of the oboe’s voice floats above the orchestra and the emphasized voice of the harp. The romance of the musical narrative enters the Oboe Concerto in this realm of a dreamy fantasy. But still, the suspense of the story endures throughout the uplifting love scene, as the strings section persists with a quiet undertone of pulsing dissonances that create lingering tension. With an astounding orchestra-wide climax at the end of this slow movement, the composition returns to a thrilling adventure scene, now accompanied by the hovering bliss of dream-like romance. Through a dramatic progression of emotion, the movements of Rouse’s composition shape a compelling musical narrative.

Rouse establishes the oboe as the hero of this narrative. The orchestra’s melodies and rhythms seem to always be a reaction to the oboe’s central line with repetition, modulation, and echoing. The physical scene of the musicians on stage also magnifies the oboe’s principal role. The oboe player, who stands before the seated orchestra, dances in place while he performs. His body motions reflect the changing energy throughout the composition, moving with quick, sudden thrusts during the fast movements and swaying softly during the lyrical sections. Behind him, the bows of the string instruments move together in violent paces during the lively, quick tempos, which creates a suspenseful and dramatic visual backdrop to the oboe’s central position. With such physical imagery in the performance, the Oboe Concerto asserts the oboe as the main character of an adventurous tale, accompanied by a dynamic and reactionary orchestral scene.

In his experimentation with unexpected juxtapositions, utilization of simple motifs, and emotive progression through the dramatic movements, Christopher Rouse exceeds limitations on technical traditions and asserts the musical qualities of the present. With extreme energies, tense dissonances, and dreamy melisma, the audience experiences an exciting adventure through danger and romance in the Oboe Concerto’s emotional musical narrative.

By Lucille Marshall

Written for Masterpieces of Western Music with Instructor Beau Bothwell at Columbia University in the City of New York.

Works Cited

Principal Oboe Richard Woodhams – Rouse – Oboe Concerto.” YouTube. YouTube, 18 Jan. 2011. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.


About lucystarer

college student. hiker. oatmeal eater.

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