• New work for dance, chamber ensemble, and solo voices (9/28/20)

(Updated September 28, 2020) Since March of this truly awful year, I’ve had the very good fortune to be working on a new work co-commissioned by the Shobana Jeyasingh Dance company and the historic Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London. Originally conceived of as a response work to Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, this project (yet to be named), has taken on a life of its own.  I’ve written for two outstanding vocalists: Dima Orsho and tenor, Ed Lyon. The text was in 16th century Italian, and was the same text by Torquato Tasso that Monteverdi set for Il Combattimento, and 11th century Arabic poetry by Al-Abiwardi that begins:

مزجنا دمانا بالدُّموعِ السَّواجمِ 

We have mixed blood with flowing tears,

For none is left among us to be a mark for the catapults.

The idea of this new work is to take the character of Clorinda and re-imagine her as a current day refugee who has arrived in Europe. Tancredi’s character has been combined with the narrator (Testo) and is both a seeker and observer of Clorinda; he is desperate to know who she is, but struggles to understand her.  The plot of Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento… is often misunderstood; as the NY Times’s Seth Colter Walls mistakenly describes it “This short narrative about warriors in the Crusades is, at heart, a tale of star-crossed lovers.” The Crusades bit is correct, but the rest is way off the mark. The truth of the matter is that Clorinda has little interest in Tancredi, who is really nothing more than infatuated with someone he does not understand or comprehend. Tancredi is an orientalist who wants to idealize and exoticize Clorinda into something that she isn’t. He keeps asking, “who are you?” and she continually rebuffs him by replying, “Indarno Chiedi” (in vain you ask). Our twist on this was to take the Tasso text that Monteverdi set and to translate all of Cloridan’s lines into Arabic. This actually provided quite a few options of Arabic lines that meant, “in vain you ask”.

This work is also scored for string quartet and some electronics.  The string quartet writing is, perhaps, more straight ahead than other quartet music that I’ve written but it lends support to the vocalists as well as providing a rhythmic bed for the dancers.  One recent dance is inspired by the musical rhythms and dance movements of the Iraqi Chobi dance, which can be very acrobatic.

One result of this project is that I’ve already planned a new work for string quartet based on some of the dances.  More on this soon.

As far as a world-premiere date for the new work with singers and dancers, it isn’t clear just yet. Like most of everything in 2020, we must wait and see. If we ask now we may as well be greeted with the reply, Indarno Chiedi.

Ice, Wind, War & Spring • for mixed chorus and orchestra update

Some works need more time than others and this new work is no exception . The most difficult part of writing vocal music, at least for me, is putting someone else’s words into my mouth. Choosing text for a work such as this was time consuming and difficult, but very rewarding. To begin with there is the occasion of the commission. 2020 Will mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen; the commissioner of this work and where I am currently composer-in-residence.  2020 is also a big Beethoven anniversary and it is, more importantly, the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II.  The Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen was founded out of the rubble of WWII. At that time the city’s mayor was Oskar Kalbfell, who was appointed by the French occupying forces. I am told by WPR’s intendant that Kalbfell was instrumental in founding the WPR 75 years ago. Kalbfell felt that the city not only had to rebuild its homes, hospitals, schools but it also had to rebuild its cultural institutions, the orchestra being one of them.  I had a very interesting visit to the Reutlingen City Museum where I learned about its booms and busts over the years, the great fire, its notable figures. Tucked in the basement was the darkest chapter of its history; the period of the National Socialists.

With such a loaded history and with a world that is swinging (foolishly) to the right what text does one choose for such a commission? To begin with I always do my best to avoid using text that is under copyright so that is a starting point.  In search for text for a previous commission (Turn To The World: A Whitman Cantata) I came across a beautiful poem by Walt Whitman titled Reconciliation. This became the emotional cornerstone of the work. The openning texts were by two Huguenot poets/pastors; Antoine De La Roche Chandieu (1534 – 1591) and Simon Goulart (1543 – 1628). Both wrote a type of poem called Octonaire that were written after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and were meditations on evil and the fleeting nature of earthly joys.  I placed these poems at the openning of my work to give voice to the victims of violence.

The last poem is by Rainier Maria Rilke (1875 – 1926) and is titled Vorfrühling (Early Spring).  For me, this poem speaks of the promise of re-birth and renewal but does so with great subtlety and beauty. I couldn’t see ending this work with a big ‘Ta-daaaa!!!’ and this text felt right.

World-premiere of “Clarinet Concerto: Adrift on the Wine-dark Sea”

After years of planning and patiently waiting, clarinetist Kinan Azmeh premiered my Clarinet Concerto in Southern Germany with the Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen under the direction of Fawzi Haimor. Kinan’s performance was stunning (as was his encore solo performance) and maestro Haimor gave a superb and focused performance with his excellent colleagues at the Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen.

Post premiere photo with conductor Fawzi Haimor (left) & Kinan Azmeh.

There was an audience of about 950 at the Stadthalle Reutlingen and the reception was enthusiastic.  That three Arab-American musicians were involved in a world-premiere of a sizable work about the desperate situation of refugees fleeing persecution, war and strife is, in my mind, no small thing.


My clarinet concerto was recorded by Kinan Azmeh and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and is available here. This double CD album was beautifully recorded in Berlin and features wonderful compositions by Kinan, and Syrian composers Zaid Jabri and the late Dia Succari. Kinan also won the Opus Klassik (the German equivalent of the Grammys) for this recording.

As I am currently the composer-in-residence with the WPR, there are still a few more events coming up. To begin with there is a second performance of my clarinet concerto on September 27. Details are here.  I am also proofing a new work for choir and orchestra titled Ice, Wind, War & Spring. Commissioned by WPR this work celebrates that orchestra’s 75th anniversary as well as commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. The concert premiere will take place on January 12 & 13 of 2020 in Reutlingen.

Kinan Azmeh and I find a poster in town advertising the concert.

The American premiere will take place in Chicago this coming October with the Park Ridge Civic Orchestra.

October 25 & 27, 2019 North American premiere of Clarinet Concerto: Adrift on the Wine-dark Sea with soloist Kinan Azmeh with the Park Ridge Civic Orchestra in Chicago. Details below:

10/25 for Discover Symphony is https://www.discoversymphony.org/

10/27 for PRCO is https://www.parkridgecivicorchestra.org/

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.”