LaRosa rattles the church windows

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 20.04.2015

Young Boston area players performed a broad range of instrumental and vocal works by the up-and-coming Boston University (BU) composer Christopher LaRosa (in the picture) Friday night at Boston’s United Church of Brookline, virtually rattling the stained-glass windows and prompting much whooping by his BU comrades in the audience.

The evening, titled “The Music of Christopher LaRosa”, displayed the full range of LaRosa’s compositional grasp, an oeuvre that seems extraordinarily mature for the boyish 24-year-old just finishing his master’s degree at BU. His disparate works for piano, strings, voice and flute are fully-developed and contemporary, yet accessible. He says he and his musicians are “committed to enlivening the art” of music performance. “I strive to communicate with my musicians and audiences through a music that provokes, challenges, and evokes meaning.” That’s precisely what he did Friday night. 

The evening began with Cayuga, a piano-violin-cello trio that featured LaRosa at the keyboard. (The same work was performed at Tanglewood last year to great acclaim.) Inspired by a near-death experience that occurred when he was a boy, LaRosa began with a water-evoking pianissimo on the keyboard, giving way to Klaudia Szlachta’s sensitive violin and Hyun-Ji Kwon’s sensuous cello. The two strings engage in a dialogue, with the piano shifting from accompaniment to its own contribution. The momentum builds steadily, reaching a memorable passage of considerable violence. Finally, LaRosa’s piano returns to the opening figure, bringing a sense of water back into view.

The timely programming of Spring Giddiness followed, soprano Alexandra Harvey singing with bell-like clarity to LaRosa’s accompaniment. Taken from a text by 13th century mystic poet Rami, Ms. Harvey sang:


Don’t open the door to the study

And begin reading. Take down a musical instrument,

Let the beauty we love do what we do.


The concert was something of a personal statement by LaRosa, featuring several works based on family stories and poetry from his grandparents and great-grandparents. He explained in his program notes that he began composing at the age of eight, after his grandmother suggested it. “If it were not for her, I might never have picked up a pencil and written that first composition – she truly gave birth to my creativity,” he wrote.

In his Songs for Nana the 12-voice LaRosa Chamber Choir performed the sometimes humorous lines in close harmony that lead to an end-of-life description. In the final stanzas, the singers leave the stage in twos or threes. Finally even the deeply involved and demonstrative conductor, Sam Kjellberg, makes his exit, stranding tenor Trey Pratt alone on stage, singing:


Alas when prepared to part,

Will I bid farewell forever

The sunshine of my heart?


LaRosa’s most dramatic touch of the evening had Pratt then descend the stage and leave via the main aisle as the other voices reunited offstage, quietly backing up his solo. The effect was eerie and moving.

Pianist Tom Weaver performed LaRosa’s Passacaglia, a world premiere virtuoso solo that has an identity all its own, calling on continuous keyboard leaps and trills that move inexorably toward a clamorous ending. Weaver was in complete control of the music and gave it the exuberance LaRosa intended. 

Jennifer Davis took center stage for a flute solo, Mythologies, inspired by stories of Hugin and Munin, birds from Norse folk tales. Davis smoothly rendered the conversation between the two birds, written as a “figurative dialogue between thought and memory”, the translation of the birds’ names.

The concert concluded with Symmetries, performed by the double quartet of the LaRosa Chamber Players with conductor Patrick Valentino controlling this complex and boisterous work. Even LaRosa’s program notes warn that the quartets “rapidly become entangled with one another”. Again as a demonstration of LaRosa’s range, the ensemble meticulously displayed the composition’s “variety of musical parameters,” including orchestration, timbre, texture, form and pitch. LaRosa says  the second movement was influenced by the concept of fractals, organizing “multiple levels of symmetry into a hierarchic layering of nested reflective patterns”. The third and final movement, imitating life’s contradictions, closes with a devastating clash.

The entrepreneurial LaRosa completes his BU degree this term and will go on to work for a doctorate at Indiana University. He told me after the concert that he already knows he will focus his musical life on composing. 

This article originally appeared in the Boston Musical Intellgencer, please click here.

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