Conductor David Zinman commisioned Karolju from composer Christopher Rouse. Photo from davidzinman.org.
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Karolju | Five stars out of 5
Conductor David Zinman has long been one of the biggest champions of new music in the classical music world. This holiday season, he turns that passion into a gift for choral music lovers with Karolju, a work for chorus and orchestra by Baltimore composer Christopher Rouse. Karolju was originally commissioned from Rouse by Zinman in 1989, when Zinman was music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. At its premiere in 1991, Karolju became an instant hit with Baltimore audiences, and it’s easy to see why. The work sounds at once familiar and new.
Rouse drew his inspiration from a collection of Christmas carols written over several centuries, and he put them in a cantata form in numerous languages. Often, he was going as much for the sound of the words as he was in any complete phrases. In the up-tempo numbers, such the Czech passage and Latin sections, that gives the vocals a percussive kick. But there are also moments of transcendant beauty, such as the pastoral Italian segment that closes the work. What’s hard to understand is why Zinman had such a hard time getting Karolju recorded. It’s a vibrant work that should quickly move off classical shelves and find itself on choral programs in coming years. Zinman and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonia Chorus paired Rouse’s premiere with Witold Lutoslawski’s Polish Christmas Carols and Joaquin Rodrigo’s Retablo de Navidad for a complete holiday treat.