Chris Rouse jokes that his new orchestral piece has caused some of his old friends in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to fear that he's lost his marbles.
"The orchestra, I must say, seems confused," said the Baltimore-born composer earlier this week after music director David Zinman and the orchestra had rehearsed his new piece, "Karolju," for the first time. "I think that some of the musicians thought that I must have had a lobotomy."
The reason is simple enough. Rouse, who teaches at the Eastman School in Rochester, N.Y., and who was the BSO's composer-in-residence from 1986-1989, typically writes music that is difficult to play, sometimes deafeningly loud and savage in its emotional impact. It's intense stuff -- something the composer himself has never denied. But in this piece for orchestra and chorus, Rouse set out to do something very different.
"Everything else I write is so grief-laden, I wanted to have at least one oasis of joy," the 42-year-old composer says.
The title -- it's the composer's own coinage -- refers to Christmas carols. And "Karolju" is a 25-minute piece that links carols in several languages -- among them, Latin, Czech, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, French and Italian -- in music that is sweet, singable and straight forward.
"This is totally different from anything Chris has ever written," says Zinman, who has known the composer since his student years. "Instead of Chris' usual writing -- difficult to play and [emotionally painful] to listen to -- he's done something that's immense fun to play and listen to. I have a feeling that 'Karolju'will be played for many Christmases to come."
Nothing has happened to change Rouse's outlook on life. He has just always loved Christmas music.
"And I don't mean serious pieces like Handel's 'Messiah' or Bach's 'Christmas Oratorio,' " he says. "I mean popular Christmas carols, the kind of things you used to hear on the Robert Shaw Chorale albums or on [records with titles like] 'Eugene Ormandy plays your Christmas favorites.' "
For "Karolju," which was commissioned for the orchestra with money provided by longtime Baltimore music patron Randolph Rothschild and the Barlow Foundation, Rouse wrote his own texts as well as the music. Except for the traditional Christmas greetings in the texts, the composer himself has almost no idea what the texts mean.
"I wrote the texts based on phonetic qualities of words rather than on some kind of cognitive meaning in the traditional sense," he says. "Yet it's not really gobbledygook -- the whole piece was motivated by a love of the holiday and of Christmas music. I guess you could say it's sort of like speaking in tongues.
"All I wanted to do is write a piece that's filled with what are singable and with what I hope are memorable tunes," the composer continues. "It's a piece that ignores the last 100 years of music, maybe more than that. Atonal or intensely chromatic music doesn't fit Christmas carols. They should be straightforward and celebratory. This is my one happy piece, and now that it's out of my system, it's back to gloom and doom for me."