In his First Symphony, Joey Roukens reaches a new milestone

On the surface, there were similarities between the two premieres presented by the Rotterdam Philharmonic and conductor André de Ridder. The American Mason Bates wrote a Piano Concerto (2021) for world star Daniil Trifonov that was heard for the first time in the Netherlands; Joey Roukens composed his First Symphony. Both composers have been influenced by pop, dance and film music in their orchestration, but the difference in quality was almost embarrassing. Roukens turned out to be in a class of its own.

Bates, also a DJ, proved to be a musician of grand gestures. The opening part was intriguing enough, with fairytale Efteling tunes, ominously shifting basses, clattering castanets, a pumping beat and a somewhat haphazard brass fanfare. In the meantime Trifonov conjured up somewhat trivial, but layered quasi-pop from the keyboard. Then things went terribly wrong. The middle section, constructed from pathetic piano clichés, was so kitschy that it became absurd: muscular, overly oiled nothingness. The propulsive final in seven beats was so clumsy that even the Rotterdam Philharmonic couldn’t make anything of it.

Joey Roukens and the Rotterdam Philharmonic. Edward Lee

Quirky ingenuity

No, then Roukens. He has been excelling in idiosyncratic orchestral music for years and at the age of forty he thought it was time for a real ‘symphony’ in four movements, which he himself nicknamed ‘Kaleidoscopic’. Rouken’s music has always been eclectic and multicolored, but here he reaches a new milestone in terms of technical ingenuity and sense of form. This piece deserves to be played very often, so that music lovers can hear for themselves how compelling it is – even without the expense of a disappointing support act.

With Roukens, of course, no traditional allegro as the first part. Celesta and harp repeated an orphaned note, cinematic strings swelled: the music unfolded patiently, far from storming heaven. Only after a smooth zappaesque dance and a threatening near-climax with pulsating copper did the carefully built tension reach a thunderous discharge. It had John Adams-esque allure, as the entire history of music condensed into a sparking, barely controllable force field. The ghost code after that was beautiful.

An endless melody formed the core of the slow second movement, ‘Ayre’, with an ethereal twist that didn’t quite pan out. But Roukens’ atmosphere management turned out to be flawless: part three, ‘Scherzo’, rubbed Bates under the nose how you do write exciting notes in a driving seven-count measure. The Scherzo turned out to be full-blooded finale music with a fantastic ending, a bold and virtuoso nod to bombastic nineteenth-century climaxes. It created space for a return to the stillness of the beginning, but then more grim and wiser, for the final movement, an imposing blooming, purifying Adagio.

More Roukens is coming: be Bosch Requiem will premiere on 3 November in Amsterdam and can then be heard during November Music (Den Bosch) and in Enschede.

Second movement from Roukens’ ‘Rising Phenix’ (2014) for choir and orchestra:

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