Poul Ruders Tempers Dark Narratives with Scandinavian Cool

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Danish composer Poul Ruders once described the aesthetic character of his early family and scholastic environments as “staunchly conservative.” Within those confines, the young Ruders thrilled to Vivaldi, Purcell and Buxtehude. But though Ruders reports that he and his fellow Danes were insulated, to some degree, from the sweeping cult of Pierre Boulez and Darmstadt that overtook much of Europe in the '60s and '70s, modernity could not be kept from their shores forever.

When the student composer got his hands on some Alban Berg and Olivier Messiaen, his sound-world changed accordingly. As a consequence, perhaps, of his not needing to swear allegiance one way or another, Ruders’s orchestral writing contains one of the widest – but also most well-adjusted and welcoming – palettes in contemporary music.

Ruders’s diverse body of compositions – symphonies, operas, chamber pieces and solo works – is tied together by his smooth absorption of these many styles and modes. Though all of his pieces are apt to turn on a dime, rarely do they ever seem to sacrifice much in the way of equanimity when doing so. The temptation to put this up to some broad notion of Scandinavian cool can be dispensed with by comparing the composer’s work to that of the roughly contemporaneous Finnish school of Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho and Esa-Pekka Salonen – many of whose works seem more astringent than do those of Ruders.

While a piece such as his recent Piano Concerto No. 2 may swing back and forth from quiet pianissimo moments to thrumming tutti chords – with brief snaps of minimalist, percussive thwack dropping in without warning – there is a consistent warmth to even the most aggressive Ruders arrangement that will distinguish it from many pieces by his more spectrally-focused regional cousins.

Ruders has also made a name for himself as a composer of opera, in part due to his courageous adaptations of major works from other mediums. Critical consensus anoints his first major effort in this realm, The Handmaid’s Tale (first a novel by Margaret Atwood), as his principal success in opera thus far. But his even-more-daring re-envisioning of a Lars Von Trier musical, Dancer in the Dark, as the opera Selma Jezkova, also has admirers.

In between those two compositions, Ruders also devised an operatic version of Kafka’s The Trial, making for a trilogy of major stage works on dark narrative themes. Elsewhere in the Ruders catalog, a loose trilogy of symphonic works – given the macro-title of the Solar Trilogy – represents another milestone. By the time the smeared textures of “Gong” have given way to the meditative qualities of “Zenith,” which, in turn, have made their hand-off to the marching drive of “Cornona,” the listener of this hour-plus cycle has taken another typically discursive tour through the many, well-adjusted moods of the composer.