Turn To The World: A Whitman Cantata • World-premiere reviews and photos

Carlos Kalmar conducts the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus in the Grant Park Music Festival’s world premiere of Kareem Roustom’s Turn to the World: A Whitman Cantata, June 14, 2019, Jay Pritkzer Pavilion in Millennium Park. Photo by Norman Timonera.

The Chicago Tribune wrote: “Nothing spotlights the Grant Park Music Festival’s value more significantly than the premieres it commissions, and an impressive one took place on Friday night.  At first glance, “Turn to the World: A Whitman Cantata” – by composer-in-residence Kareem Roustom – might have suggested a look back at the 19th century ethos of poet Walt Whitman. But the Whitman texts the Syrian-American composer quoted seemed carefully chosen to speak to our times. ‘Turn to the World: A Whitman Cantata’ stood as searing social commentary and, as such, should win many performances to come.” 

Composer Kareem Roustom before the Grant Park Music Festival’s world premiere of Roustom’s Turn to the World: A Whitman Cantata, June 14, 2019, Jay Pritkzer Pavilion in Millennium Park. Photo by Norman Timonera.

Adaptistration wrote: “Written for the GPMF, this world premiere introduced a work that was powerful, profound, and perhaps most importantly, relevant.  From beginning to end, the 18-minute work grabbed the listener by the collar and delivered a transformative experience. It was helped in large part by never being afraid to use every element of the full orchestra and chorus to its most powerful effect. It left me feeling like I was a better person than the one who showed up at the beginning of the concert.”

Composer Kareem Roustom with conductor Carlos Kalmar following the Grant Park Music Festival’s world premiere of Roustom’s Turn to the World: A Whitman Cantata, June 14, 2019, Jay Pritkzer Pavilion in Millennium Park. Photo by Norman Timonera.

Classical Voice North America:With strident trumpets, drum rolls, and driving strings, Roustom’s sharp-edged music courses with urgency and grandeur befitting Whitman’s biting text. It builds admirably in intensity until reaching the quieter third movement, with a lone trumpet and other delicate orchestral accents accompanying the four-stanza poem “Roaming in Thought (After reading Hegel).” Then, in a masterstroke, Roustom opens the hopeful, uplifting fourth movement, which looks to a potentially brighter future in the poem “Turn O Libertad,” with the chorus singing the first stanzas a cappella, a sudden, unexpected switch that drives home the force of the words. Overall, it is a powerful, emphatic work that seems just the right length – making its point and not unduly lingering. Roustom has written six previous choral works, and he clearly understands how to write for the voice.”

“Hurry To The Light” Premiere update

At Boston’s Jordan Hall this past Friday May 17th saw the premiere of a new work, Hurry To The Light, that was co-commissioned by the Grammy-nominated string orchestra A Far Cry and the women’s chorus Lorelei Ensemble. This work is based on a new translation by Emily Wilson of Homer’s The Odyssey . The Boston Globe covered this project with both a preview  by David Weininger and a concert review by Zoë Madonna.

Likewise, the Boston Music Intelligencer (which has in the past offered a very uneven quality of music criticism) offered a Q & A with A Far Cry’s Sarah Darling and Lorelei’s Beth Willer.  A review of the concert by Steven Ledbetter followed here.

Most importantly, the audience responded enthusiastically to the premiere of Hurry To The Light as well as the entire program. I was really struck Jessica Meyer‘s work-in-progress for Lorelei and I look forward to hearing that completed work. To have also received so many positive comments from the performers is incredibly gratifying. I hope that this work will be repeated in the not too distant future as it is, perhaps, the first full work that I’ve written for voices that I feel happy about (for the moment, at least 😉

Violin Concerto No. 1 Premiere update

Last Wednesday March 6 my Violin Concerto No. 1 had it’s premiere at the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin with soloist Michael Barenboim along with the Pierre Boulez Ensemble under the direction of Lahav Shani. The performance was electric, inspired and inspiring. Both the soloist and the ensemble played with fire and passion!  [Also on the program was a gem that I had not known, which is Janacek’s Concertino. I’ve always been drawn to his quirky and slightly off kilter melodic sensibilities, which are sound so fresh and surprising.]

The concert received a very nice review in Tagesspiegel .

Here is an interview/conversation that I had with the Pierre Boulez Saal about my Violin Concerto No. 1.

I am now working on an arrangement of this work for a larger orchestra. More details soon.

Rehearsing with the ensemble. Photo by Peter Adamik
Taking bows after the premiere. Photo by Peter Adamik

Roustom Clarinet Concerto CD release is coming soon!

Congratulations to clarinetist Kinan Azmeh on the forthcoming February 8th European release of his new CD, Uneven Sky. This is quite an achievement as it included the recording of four large scale concertos, one of which was his own composition. The CD was recorded in Berlin with the fabulous Deutsches-Symhphonie Orchestre, as well as in Boston for a duet with Yo Yo Ma. The CD also feautres the world-premiere recording of my Clarinet Concerto: Adrift On The Wine-dark Sea. The US release will be around of March 2019.

2018 – 2020 Residencies

I am very honored to announce that I am now the composer-in-residence with the wonderful Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen . This residency began this past Saturday (December 1st, 2018) evening with an open rehearsal of my Ramal for orchestra, and followed by a sold out performance on Monday night. The residency will continue into the 2019 – 2020 season and will include the world-premiere of my Clarinet Concerto: Adrift on the Wine-dark Sea (September 2019) with clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, a performance of my Dabke for string orchestra, as well as a commission for a new work for choir and orchestra to celebrate the 75 anniversary of the WPR and the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, which is when the WPR was founded.

In addition, I will be resident composer at the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago which is celebrating maestro Carlos Kalmar’s 20th season as its general music director. I am currently composing for GPMF a work for choir and orchestra titled A Whitman Cantata with text by Walt Whitman.

“Hurry To The Light” for SSA & string orchestra

This last few months since June have been quite busy; Violin Concerto No. 1 has been completed and I’ve just completed a new work for women’s chorus and string orchestra. This work is based on text from a new translation by Emily Wilson of Homer’s The Odyssey.

With the help of a friend I chose several profiles of the women in The Odyssey as a basis for my text; Penelope, Circe, the Sirens, & Odysseus’ mother. Working with this text was quite challenging but it was interesting to note that only two words appeared several times; “together” & “knowledge”. The first was in reference to the long separation between Penelope and Odysseus (20 years) as he went to fight the war in Troy and then struggled to return home.
The second word, “knowledge”, was in reference to seeking answers to the fates of loved ones; Penelope asking the goddess Athena about her son, Telemachus, and her husband. Also, in Emily Wilson’s brilliant translation she rightly points out that The Sirens were not offering “sex”, as many other translations (by men!) purported, but they were offering knowledge. At that time “knowledge” of the future, the whereabouts of your enemy etc. was power. To ‘know’ something was to be certain beyond a doubt. This made me think quite a lot about how in our time we mistake “information” for “knowledge.” What does it mean to really ‘know’ something today? Has a cursory Google search erased “knowledge” and replaced it with ‘information’?
Important questions about our ability to make decisions based on “knowledge” vs. “information’. That is why I’ve come back to The Odyssey many times and will likely do so in the future.

“Ramal” for orchestra at the Minnesota Orchestra: reviews

It was such a pleasure to visit Minneapolis for the first time. The warmth of the people I met as well as the absolutely fabulous Minnesota Orchestra has left me yearning for another visit soon.  “Ramal” opened a program that featured John Adams’ Gnarly Buttons and Holst’s The Planets. About Ramal, Rob Hubbard of the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote, “There’s also a lot of menace afoot, as well as relentlessly turbulent time changes that can make you feel tossed about. But a mystical aura emerges, the absorbing work leaving me intrigued to hear more of Roustom’s creations.”

Terry Blaine of the Star Tribune wrote:

“Ramal,” a single-movement work by the Syrian-American composer Kareem Roustom, opened the concert, providing a much spikier musical experience.

Designed to “reflect the unsettled state of the world,” “Ramal” made a jagged, unsettling impression in the Minnesota Orchestra’s rhythmically pointed, incisive performance.

It was a sober curtain-raiser to a concert that eventually provided li

beral amounts of musical relief and escapism from our own troubled planet.”


Current Projects Update 9/5/2018

With a busy fall semester ahead I can now look back at a productive summer that included the completion of my Violin Concerto No. 1 and the premiere at the Grand Teton Music Festival of my String Quartet No. 1: Shades of Night.

Post premiere of String Quartet No.1: Shades Of Night, back stage at the Grand Teton Music Festival, August 2nd, 2018. (Left to right): Susan Assadi Gulkis on viola, Angie Fuller-Heyde on 1st Violin, Kareem Roustom, Charae Krueger on Cello, Marta Krechkovsky on 2nd Violin and Jerry Hou, conductor.

The GTMF musicians performed beautifully and I am eternally grateful to them for bringing this work to life. I look forward to sharing the audio from the premiere soon!

The Violin Concerto No. 1, which will have its premiere in Berlin on March 6, 2019, is now with an excellent and capable copyist, Doug Biggs.

Now I can focus on a new work for A Far Cry and Lorelei Ensemble. The text for this work comes from a new translation of the Homer’s The Odyssey by Emily Wilson. I am just beginning to explore this material and I look forward to writing for these excellent musicians. The premiere will take place at New England Conservatory’s beautiful Jordan Hall on May 17, 2019.

Incidentally, Violin Concerto No. 2 has already been commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra for their principal 2nd violinist, Angie Fuller-Heyed, who premiered my String Quartet No. 1 (pictured above). It was such a pleasure to work with Angie and her colleagues this past August, and the time working together will be incredibly helpful when I begin the violin concerto for her. I tend to write works for specific people rather than an instrument or an ensemble. Getting to know a soloist, conductor, or performers is, for me, vital in the creative process. As is visualizing the physicality of playing a particular passage, especially in a concerto setting. Violin Concerto No. 2 is scheduled to be premiered sometime in the 2020 – 21 season.

Also in early May I recorded my Clarinet Concerto: Adrift on the Wine-dark Sea.This work, which I am very excited about, will be released on Kinan Azmeh’s CD sometime this fall. More details soon.

Finding time to work on Violin Concerto No. 1 while in Berlin recording my Clarinet Concerto with Kinan Azmeh and the Deutches Symphonie Orchestre.


At the end of the recording session in Berlin with (left to right) clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, vocalist Dima Orsho, conductor Manuel Nawari, me, and engineer Florian Schmidt.

Also in April and May, I orchestrated 60 minutes of music of Olivier Deriviere’s beautiful score for a new video game titled, 11-11 Memories Retold. I also had the distinct pleasure of attending the  recording session at Abbey Road Studios in London with the Philharmonia Orchestra, who are one of the finest orchestras around. This was my third time working at Abbey Road and it is always a thrill, and I always learn so much from working with such an excellent orchestra.  I’ve not orchestrated music for anyone other than Olivier, as I don’t have the time to do so.  Olivier is a friend and a colleague and, as his regular orchestrator dropped out at the last minute, he was in a bit of a bind. The fact that the gig comes with a few days in London is an incentive as well. On this trip I was able to make a pilgrimage to Benjamin Britten’s home in Aldeburgh. It was a fascinating and inspiring visit!

At the producer’s desk in Abbey Road’s Studio 1 listening to the Philharmonia Orchestra recording Olivier Deriviere’s beautiful score to the video game “11-11 Memories Retold”, which I had the pleasure of orchestrating. The legendary engineer John Kurlander is at the console.

In other news, I am very happy to announce that I’ve signed a contract with the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago to compose a 15 (or so) minute work for choir and orchestra for their 2019 summer season, which will commemorate maestro Carlos Kalmar‘s 20th year as music director at GPMF. I’ve chosen text by Walt Whitman after extensive research that included reading an informative but frustratingly meandering biography by Justin Kaplan, as well as reading most of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

As it turns out, 2019 will be the 200th anniversary of Whitman’s birth, which was on May 31st. The themes of the text I’ve chosen are from Whitman’s writing on social justice, corruption and democracy. More on this soon…

Please don’t “like” and don’t “follow” us on Facebook, Twitter etc.

I’ve finally decided that it is time to disconnect from all social media. No FB, no Twitter, or any other platform. My reasons for doing so are varied but they include the reasons that have been discussed in public (from Cambridge Analytica and earlier). I also believe that these social media companies are, in essence, vile in their methods of manipulating users into addiction so as to focus primarily on their bottom line.  However, you don’t have to take my word for it, there are plenty of articles on books, based on peer reviewed research, that support this point. You might start by reading internet pioneer Jaron Lanier’s book “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.” Here is a review of this book. 

It isn’t enough to blame these big companies but we must also start with ourselves; i.e. the ‘users’.  If there weren’t so many people on FB etc. then there wouldn’t be an FB etc.  As Jaron writes ““If you’re not part of the solution, there will be no solution.”

Lastly, Lanier’s book makes an important point that I’ll quote from a NY Times review below. Read this and think about it.

“[Lanier’s] argument, however, is a profound one. He worries that our reliance on big tech companies is ruining our capacity for spirituality, by turning us into robotic extensions of their machines. The companies, he argues, have no appreciation for the “mystical spark inside you.” They don’t understand the magic of human consciousness and, therefore, will recklessly destroy it.”

Professionally, FB and Twitter were not all that useful because the work that I do involves face to face relationships that require a trust that is built over time.  In addition, it is impossible to keep up with 600 or so ‘Friends’, many of whom I’d never met, even though I was grateful for their reaching out to me. Instead, I prefer to meet people, whenever possible, in person or to be in touch in other ways (old fashioned e-mail, or better yet a letter!). No I’m not a luddite but I’m also not the only one making these points.

Frankly, I feel great without FB in my life any more. Try it 🙂

OK. Enough of this. Back to work!

In memoriam Oliver Knussen

The news of Oliver Knussen’s untimely passing came to me last night via e-mail. I was deeply saddened to hear this as Knussen was only 66. As far as I’m concerned, Knussen (or ‘Olly’ to those who knew him), was one of the greatest composers, conductors and musical minds of his generation. His music moved me deeply and inspires me constantly. Last year, I composed a work for solo piano titled Soliloquia No. 1 and I dedicated it to Mr. Knussen. Earlier this year I had planned on mailing it to him with a letter thanking him for all the inspiration his music has given. However, I was too self conscious and shy to follow through with this, which is something that I regret very much.

Rest in peace, Olly.

There is a beautiful tribute in the LA Times by Mark Swed here.