Q&A with Composer Kareem Roustom

Q&A with Composer Kareem Roustom

Minnesota Orchestra's 2018-19 season includes many works new to the Orchestra's repertoire, and the first of these is a work titled Ramal by Syrian-American composer Kareem Roustom. Get to know the composer before his Minnesota Orchestra debut on September 27, 28 and 29.

What should we know about Ramal before the Orchestra performances this month?
Ramal was commissioned by the Daniel Barenboim Foundation, and it was premiered by Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in 2014. The work itself is inspired by the rhythm of classical Arabic poetry as much as it is by the writings of the late Edward Said who, along with Barenboim, founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. The work is very rhythmic in that it takes a set poetic meter, breaks it apart, develops it and then rejoins the broken parts again at the end of the work. On an emotional level, it is a work about seeing something break apart but hoping that it will come back together again. In this instance it is Syria, where I was born and raised.

How do you encourage listeners to approach a new piece of music?
An open mind, of course, is always welcome when confronting the unfamiliar. I recently read an interview with composer and conductor Pierre Boulez where he said that confronting a lack of variety at classical music concerts is a lot like going to a museum that only has 17 or so paintings, and all from roughly the same time period and place. So perhaps listeners might try to imagine that scenario when confronting some new pieces on a concert program.

Where do you find inspiration for your work?
Inspiration for me comes first and foremost from the people for whom I am composing the work and the occasion for which I am composing it. I love the challenge of variety. From there I am able to explore the many possibilities that arise from the occasion—sometimes it is poetry, sometimes it is humanistic or social justice advocacy, or sometimes it is an abstract musical exploration. The musical material itself is less important than what one crafts with it.

Who are your biggest supporters?
My wife, without a doubt. After that I’ve been very fortunate to have the support and encouragement of maestro Daniel Barenboim who has asked me to compose two works: Ramal and my recently completed Violin Concerto No. 1. I’ve also been very grateful to maestro Donald Runnicles for his continued championing of my work at the Grand Teton Music Festival, where I was composer-in-residence this past summer.

What are some of the challenges that today’s composers face in the classical music industry?
The challenges faced by composers are the same faced by performers, namely finding and sustaining audiences. I think we need to strive to belong to our communities and to find a place where are best serving them. This can take many forms but the intent must be there from the outset.

What have you been listening to lately?
I am currently going through a Stravinsky listening and reading period. Shortly before that, as I was writing my first violin concerto I was listening to quite a few concertos including some recent wonderful ones by Oliver Knussen, Thomas Adès and Kaija Saariaho. I’ve also been exploring some music by composers who blend cultures, like Cuban-American composer Tania León.

What projects are next for you?
I am very grateful to have quite a few projects coming up and these include the forthcoming release on CD of my Clarinet Concerto: Adrift on the Wine-dark Sea, which was recorded this past May in Berlin by clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and the Deutsches Symphonie-orchester.

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

In March 2019, my Violin Concerto No. 1 will be premiered in Berlin at the Pierre Boulez Saal, by violinist Michael Barenboim and the Pierre Boulez Ensemble. The piece that I’m currently working on, which is for the Boston-based string orchestra A Far Cry and the Lorelei Ensemble women’s chorus, will have its premiere in Boston in May 2019 and is based on a new translation of Homer’s The Odyssey. After that there is a commission from the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago for a work for choir and orchestra (June 2019 premiere) based on poems by Walt Whitman, a commission from the Dallas Symphony for what will be my second violin concerto for their principal second violinist Angela Fuller-Heyde, as well as two other projects for a festival orchestra in the U.S. and an orchestra in southern Germany.

What are you doing when you aren’t composing?
Spending time with my family, reading history and swimming as often as possible.

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Minnesota Orchestra Staff