Baltimore composer Christopher Rouse, whose vivid, colorful, emotionally powerful orchestral music won a Pulitzer Prize and three Grammy awards and was performed by every major U.S. orchestra and more than a dozen others abroad, died Saturday of complications from kidney cancer at the Gilchrist Center Towson.
Mr. Rouse’s “Symphony No. 1,” commissioned by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 1988, won the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award — an early sign of a wildly successful career in which he cataloged a Requiem, six individual symphonies and a dozen concertos for various instruments.
His publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, credits him with a legacy as “one of America’s greatest orchestral voices.” His final work, Symphony No. 6, is set to receive its premiere Oct. 18-19 with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Louis Langrée.
Despite a legendary career in music, the 70-year-old never boasted and still lived in a small childhood home on Smith Avenue in Mount Washington, said his wife, Natasha Miller Rouse.
“He was a very funny man, with a dry sense of humor,” Mrs. Rouse said. “He was very humble about what he did. ... He never said, ‘I’m Dr. Christopher Rouse, [with] three doctorates and all that.' It was just, ‘I’m Chris.’ "
Christopher Chapman Rouse III was born Feb. 15, 1949, in Baltimore to Christopher Rouse Jr., a salesman at Pitney Bowes, and Margorie Rouse, a radiology secretary.
He began composing at age 7, graduated from the Gilman School and earned a bachelor’s degree at the Oberlin Conservatory, according to his online biography.
Mr. Rouse studied under Richard Hoffmann at Oberlin and took private lessons with George Crumb in Philadelphia upon his graduation in 1971. He did his graduate studies with Karel Husa at Cornell University, where he earned master’s and doctoral degrees in 1977.
He received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1976 and took a fellowship at the University of Michigan teaching composition two years later.
Mr. Rouse’s first significant commission came from Boston Musica Viva in 1982 for “Rotae Passionis,” a piece for a mixed chamber ensemble.
He would spend the next several decades stacking up critical accolades and writing works commissioned by the New York and Los Angeles philharmonics, his hometown Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra and many others.
In 1993, Mr. Rouse won the Pulitzer Prize in music for his Trombone Concerto, dedicated for American composer Leonard Bernstein after Bernstein’s death. He also won three Grammy awards, two for his Cello Concerto, premiered by Yo-Yo Ma and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and another for a guitar concerto.
Marin Alsop, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s music director, said Mr. Rouse’s passing is an “enormous loss” both as an artist and friend.
“I was able to spend time with him these last weeks, and he was irreverent and profound, as always,” Ms. Alsop told The Baltimore Sun.
David Zinman, 84, the retired longtime music director at Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra and a staunch advocate of Mr. Rouse’s, led the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra in performing his pieces.
Mr. Rouse, he said, always seemed to give orchestras the same notes after hearing them rehearse his music: “Louder and faster.”
His encyclopedic knowledge of music extended to rock 'n' roll and pop, and he had one vast collection of records and another of composers’ autographed photos, said Mr. Zinman, former music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
Mr. Rouse would often compose with soap operas like “Days of Our Lives” or “General Hospital” on in the background, Mr. Zinman said.
“He just sat down and wrote score while watching daytime television,” Mr. Zinman said. “In the beginning, it was all handwritten. He almost never made a mistake.”
In its statement, Boosey & Hawkes noted the “extreme emotional depth and colorful orchestration" in Mr. Rouse’s music, which "reflected his insatiable curiosity for music from across Western music history to popular rock.”
He served as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Composer in Residence in 1986 and then the New Music Adviser, suggesting contemporary works by various composers for the orchestra to play, from 1989 to 2000. He was then the New York Philharmonic Composer in Residence from 2012 to 2015.
For over 20 years he was a member of the composition faculty at The Juilliard School and the Distinguished Composer-in-Residence at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
Peter Kjome, president and CEO of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, said the organization was sad to hear of the death of Mr. Rouse, a “brilliant and renowned composer.”
"We were privileged to premiere many of his new works, and we were enriched by his presence as our Composer in Residence and New Music Advisor,” Mr. Kjome said in a statement.
As his health deteriorated recently, he would make jokes to lighten the mood and keep Mrs. Rouse smiling, she recalled fondly.
“Even in the end,” Mrs. Rouse said, “he was kind and patient."