CONDUCTOR GEORGE HANSON must've been feeling rebellious. Though unavailable for comment (he was still leading his orchestra in Germany during the writing of this story), his program notes for the Tucson Symphony Orchestra's season finale, "A Hero's Life," are rife with admiration for the two composers whose unconventional works will end the TSO season on a challenging note. Or rather, several challenging and even controversial notes from the last century, jumping from the 1990s back to the 1890s.
The TSO dives into the throes of personal struggle with contemporary American composer Christopher Rouse's Symphony No. 2, a dramatic, strategically dissonant work of about 30 minutes, characterized by emotive allegros that bookend a central, slow movement.
"The trigger for this grief-laden Adagio," program notes explain, "was the sudden death in 1992 of Rouse's colleague and close friend, composer Stephen Albert. Uniting the symphony is a motive of two adjacent semitones, a motto frequently heard in all of the scores comprising Rouse's 'Death Cycle,' which in addition to the symphony includes the concert for trombone, cello and flute, and the purely orchestral Envoi (1995)."
Rouse (rhymes with Strauss), who turns 51 this year, was a young man of 30 when his original compositions first started making waves on the glassy surface of classical music. In the late 1970s and early '80s, he fused the volume and energy of rock music with his formal training from luminaries George Crumb, Korel Flusa and Richard Holfman. Rouse has upheld a certain classical tradition by breaking it, boldly pursuing new sounds and ideas that continue to challenge both musicians and audiences -- much like the composers (Beethoven, Mahler, Schumann) whose symphonic traditions are reflected in his works of the last decade.
Among his more colorful contributions, he taught the first accredited course on the history of rock-and-roll at the conservative Eastman School; and his percussive composition "Bonham" honors the legendary Led Zeppelin drummer, John Bonham. The TSO concert will be the first opportunity for most Tucsonans to hear his Symphony No. 2. Although conceived in 1984, it wasn't performed until 1995, as a commissioned work for the Houston Symphony Orchestra.
The second half of the TSO concert returns to tradition -- although hardly a less adrenal one -- with Richard Strauss' 1898 masterwork, Ein Heldenleben ("A Hero's Life"). The last in a decade of tone poems that made him "internationally famous, internationally controversial (and) an artist to be hated and reckoned with," this tempestuous piece is an attempt to reveal through music "the inward battle of life, (the heroism) which aspires through effort and renunciation to elevate the soul."
In each case, the lives of these maverick composers inform the music presented here. (Much to the ire of critics of the day, Strauss' heroic subject is none other than himself.) That connecting thread, to their music and to each other, will receive more eloquent detail in conductor Hanson's free, pre-concert lecture.
But there are other tenuous ties. We asked composer Dan Coleman, a decorated Juilliard graduate and recent New York transplant, to give his take on the Rouse symphony. Coleman, a kindred spirit at age 28, is not only a composer in demand with several of the nation's leading ensembles, he has a shared interest in today's new rock. Among his many credits are arrangements for pop artist Lisa Loeb.
Coleman made his Tucson debut in 1997 as composer-in-residence with the visiting Metamorphosen Chamber Orchestra, followed in November 1999 by a commissioned work for the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music. Like Rouse, Coleman studied under George Crumb at the University of Pennsylvania.
In addition to its programmatic context, Coleman says the Rouse symphony is interesting on more abstract, architectural levels.
"There was a belief (among mid-20th century composers) that the World Wars 'killed' certain well-loved musical aesthetics," Coleman says, "and that new modes of expression needed to be devised. This musical project wasn't unlike what Joyce and Stein were trying to do with literature. But the old artistic techniques rose from the ashes and proved themselves germane.
"That's where a composer of Rouse's generation comes in. His music freely swings between tuneful, folksy material and a more edgy, dissonant language."
Coleman admires the pacing and structure of the symphony. "To compose really convincing large forms with such a broad palette of styles takes a special skill," he says. "Rouse composes the way Frank Stella or Barnett Newman painted -- in enormous, monochromatic brush strokes."
Though devoid of the signature themes or melodies associated with symphonic music, the first 20 minutes, played without pause, go by quickly despite their few changes in texture. The beginning of the second movement, signaled by what Coleman identifies as "a frightening interruption," is where the momentum shifts. "The initially thick, busy texture of the music dissolves into a series of solos for oboe, flute and trumpet," Coleman describes. "The third movement is almost a mirror image of the first, yet the changes in texture are more rapid and dramatic."
But technical admiration aside, Coleman shares an affinity for the music as tribute to late composer Albert. He vividly recalls where he was on that tragic day in late 1992: "I was visiting my dad in Massachusetts when we heard the local news radio report. I immediately called my composer friends in New York.
"Stephen Albert was a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who also happened to be my teacher at Juilliard," he continues. "He was a particularly vocal proponent of revitalizing an older musical aesthetic. He liked to be in the middle of the struggle I just described, and he was a hero for many composers of his generation. The loss was felt throughout the musical community."
Rouse's Symphony dramatizes the initial shock of Albert's death by transforming a repeated note motif from the first movement into a sudden, insistent banging in the percussion. "The music conjures an image of Rouse being interrupted from composing by an urgent messenger, banging on the door of his studio with the news of Albert's untimely death," Coleman interprets. "If we hear the music with its program in mind, the first movement sounds relatively naive; the second dazed and disoriented; and the third movement sounds like a bitter, disillusioned continuation of the first."
SOUNDS LIKE A tough act to follow after intermission, but that's the moment TSO concert master Bonnie Terry has been working toward since her undergraduate days at the prestigious Eastman School (alas, Rouse and his rock history had, by then, "left the building").
The vivacious, 27-year-old violinist is completing her second season with the TSO, and says both Rouse and Strauss have been giving the string players a workout. "This concert is a huge challenge," she says excitedly. "Ein Heldenleben -- not just the violin solos but everybody's parts -- is very difficult, and (will) take a lot of individual practice to get ready." The plucky TSO will have just four group rehearsals with Hanson before this week's performances.
Terry earned her master's at the Cleveland Institute, and played with the New World Symphony before moving to Tucson two years ago to teach violin at the UA and play with the TSO. She cites last November's Tchaikovsky violin concerto with the orchestra as her biggest feature of the year, but anticipates this week's concerts will be a close second.
Aside from the context of music-as-autobiography, Strauss' multiple violin solos -- so many, they're like a concerto themselves -- are Ein Heldenleben's biggest feature.
"It's not that often that you have big violin solos, but this is one of the big ones. The violin is supposed to depict his wife, who was apparently very moody," Terry says with a laugh.
"I play from my seat in the orchestra, but it's pages and pages of cadenza, just me by myself." She says both emotionally and technically, it poses the kind of challenge that's a classical musician's dream.
"There's all these little markingsäin this part she's calm, then flirtatious, then she has a temper tantrum, and then she's back to being sweet again. So it's everything from real sweet and musical to extremely technicaläI try to depict as well as I can, with my instrument, those emotions we've all felt." The biggest solo comes toward the beginning, with shorter solos resurfacing periodically throughout, and then, Terry says, "I kind of end the piece."
Though part of her master's curriculum, this will be her first time with Ein Heldenleben in concert, "the orchestra part or the solo," she says. "It's a definite first, and it's exciting that it's the season finale."
And with a wink at all this music based on real-life events, the timing couldn't be better: after giving voice to Strauss' demanding musical matrimony, Terry will take a well-deserved vacation in Salt Lake City, to plan her own wedding.
The Tucson Symphony Orchestra performs "A Hero's Life" at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, May 4 and 5, at the TCC Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave. Conductor George Hanson will lead the orchestra in Christopher Rouse's Symphony No. 2, and Richard Strauss' Ein Heldenleben. Reserved seats range from $10 to $30, plus service charges, and are available at the TSO box office (882-8585) and all Ticketmaster outlets (including Robinsons-May and Wherehouse Music). Charge by phone at 321-1000.