Rouse studied with Richard Hoffmann at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and later with Karel Husa at Cornell University, and also undertook private studies with George Crumb. He dabbled as a percussionist while at Oberlin, and a fascination with percussion runs through many of his works. He has cited the iconic 1970s rock band Led Zeppelin as a major influence and much of his early work—including his successful first symphony, premiered by the Baltimore Symphony in 1986—is influenced by rock music and characterised by intense, driving rhythms.
In the 1990s, Rouse wrote a series of works inspired by the deaths of people who were important to him. These compositions represented a different phase in the composer’s output; one he describes as being motivated by a desire to ‘look towards the light’. His work became more introspective, driven more by quiet reflection than by the ferocious energy of his earlier compositions. The first work in this phase was his Pulitzer Prize-winning Trombone Concerto, written in 1991 and dedicated to Leonard Bernstein.
Rouse wrote his Flute Concerto after hearing about the death of James Bulger, the Liverpool toddler who was abducted and killed by two ten-year-olds in 1993. The concerto is in five movements, each of which is characterised by a different mood, tempo and harmonic language. The central movement, as the title suggests, is an elegy dedicated to the memory of the murdered two-year-old. The composer writes: ‘In a world of daily horrors too numerous and enormous to comprehend en masse, it seems that only isolated, individual tragedies serve to sensitise us to the potential harm man can do to his fellow. […] I followed this case closely during the time I was composing my concerto and was unable to shake the horror of these events from my mind.’
The work does have a lighter side, not least in the two outer movements. Both entitled ‘Amhrán’—the Gaelic word for song—they feature simple, melodic solo flute melodies accompanied by orchestral strings. Although both his parents’ families immigrated to America before the Revolutionary War, Rouse has often spoken of the influence of his British heritage, claiming that he feels ‘a deep ancestral tug of recognition whenever I am exposed to the arts and traditions of the British Isles, particularly those of Celtic origin.’
He writes: ‘I have attempted to reflect my responses to these stimuli in my Flute Concerto […]. The first and last movements […] were intended in a general way to evoke the traditions of Celtic, especially Irish, folk music but to couch the musical utterance in what I hoped would seem a more spiritual, even metaphysical, manner through the use of extremely slow tempi, perhaps not unlike some of the recordings of the Irish singer Enya.’
The second and fourth movements are both faster in tempo; the second is alively march, and the fourth a scherzo. The latter is again influenced by Celtic music, this time by the traditional Irish jig. The tempo gradually increases until the music becomes frenzied and feverish, harking back to the dynamic rhythmic energy of some of Rouse’s earlier work.
The concerto received a standing ovation on its premiere in October 1994. John Guinn, a critic for the Detroit Free Press, wrote: ‘The tribute was deserved. Rouse […] has crafted a moving work whose maturity places it well above the superficial sonic glitter sometimes passed off as worthwhile music as our century nears its end. […] This concerto proves that Rouse is maturing as a composer and that he seems to have something both unique and worthwhile to say.’
from notes by Femke Colborne © 2013