Gorgon: A Review

By John Seidel • September 01, 1997 • 4 min read

Gorgon CoverGorgon: Joseph Alessi, trombone; Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop, conductor. RCA Victor Red Seal, 09026-68410-2. Works: Trombone Concerto (Winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize in Music), Gorgon, Iscariot, all by Christopher Rouse.

This is an impressive disc on several levels. As an introduction to the music of composer Christopher Rouse, it presents three works, each unique in its own right, which comprise an excellent cross section of his total output. In the liner notes to the album, Mark Swed describes two periods (so far) in Rouse's music The first works, of which Gorgon, commissioned by the Rochester Philharmonic in 1984, is an example, are "exceedingly loud, fast and raucous." Works from the second period tend to be very slow, introspective and anguished. Iscariot, which Rouse cryptically describes as autobiographical, is an excellent example of such a work. It was written in 1989 and premiered by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra with John Adams, to whom it is dedicated, conducting. The Trombone Concerto was commisioned by the New York Philharmonic for its one hundred-fiftieth anniversary. It is dedicated to the memory of Leonard Bernstein, who died in 1990, the same year Rouse began work on the piece. Later that year Aaron Copland also died and Rouse says that the loss of these composers resulted in the elegaic quality of the piece. In the score he writes:

"My Trombone Concerto is not meant primarily as a display vehicle, nor is it intended to be the the sort of lightweight work often associated with concerti for wind instruments. Rather, it is my hope to compose a work of substance, one which would allow the solo trombonist to participate in a statement of seriousness and, I hope, meaning."

All of these compositions are works of great depth and mark Rouse as indeed one of the important composers of orchestral music at the close of the century.

The performances by the Colorado Symphony are stunning. The music is quite difficult, yet the efforts turned in by this fine ensemble are first rate. Ms. Alsop appears to have a great affinity for contemporary music and leads the players to impressive levels of performance. Sonically, also, the recording is very good.

If, however, you are buying the CD because you've heard that this guy Joe Alessi is pretty good, all of the previously mentioned stuff becomes mere icing on the cake. First of all, there's that incredible sound that pervades every note of the piece, suffusing it with strength and weight, perfectly enhancing the slow, somber outer movements. This is not a tone quality to be toyed with. This is real trombone playing. Reports indicate that Alessi and Rouse communicated very little during the composition of the Concerto, yet it seems that the composer could not have written anything more appropriate for Alessi had they been roommates.

Rouse has succeeded admirably in his stated goal of producing a work of substance rather than mere virtuosic display, but in the process has placed demands on the performer that require more than the usual level of virtuosity to fulfill. He reverses the order of movements from the usual fast-slow-fast to three movements, slow-fast-slow, played attaca. In the outer slow movements, he exploits the extreme low register of the trombone, beginning the piece in the pedal register. Alessi himself, in an interview with Eileen Massinon, has related that he had to develop a "new technique" for the low register notes in order for him to maintain the level of control he desired in these movements. While the middle (fast-really fast) movement is really not virtuosic in the usual sense, it is nevertheless incredibly demanding in terms of technique and rhythmic accuracy. Mr. Alessi meets every demand head-on, conquering the most difficult passages with sure-footed ease. This is certain to be the definitive recording of the Rouse Trombone Concerto for some time to come. Not only is Alessi's playing superb from a technical standpoint, he seems to have captured perfectly the essence of the music.

This is an outstanding recording that will appeal not only to trombonists but to the musical public at large. That the Trombone Concerto is included in the package and that it is a Pulitzer Prize winner played beautifully by one of the world's great trombonists can only enhance the cause of the solo trombone generally. We owe a great deal to Christopher Rouse, to Joe Alessi, and to the Colorado Symphony with its fine conductor, Marin Alsop. The least we can do is buy the record.