Rolfe, with voices and instruments attuned to medieval sonorities, used drones, interlocking patterns and melodies as simple as plainchant, sometimes running them as live loops against each other. He found a distinct gait and tone for each section of the text. [Breathe] is a piece that needs to be heard again… – Robert Everett-Green, Globe and Mail, 24 March 2011
raW (2003) is a delightful musical romp. The effectiveness of raW is heightened by its masterful scoring. The first series of chords sound as if a much larger ensemble than Continuum’s six musicians produced it. Graced with deftly constructed light-hearted moments, it’s no wonder this effective work was awarded the 2006 Jules Léger Prize for Chamber Music … This is a distinguished album by one of our most gifted composers of new concert music, definitively played. – The Whole Note, by Andrew Timar, 28 February 2011
Rolfe’s writing for his five-player ensemble is transparent enough that I could distinguish virtually all of the sung English at Sunday’s opening performance [of Inês]. Rolfe also gives the listener plenty to hold onto throughout the piece, through repetitions of material that familiarize the ear with the music and give extra dimension to the drama. Rolfe cleverly uses fuguing to illustrate the desire of each of these singers that Pedro quit fooling around. The whole score was put together at that level of skill and economy. – Robert Everett-Green, Globe and Mail, 24 February 2009
The VSO’s concert opened with Toronto composer James Rolfe’s raW, an arch, modern hybrid that is both clever and engaging. The orchestration, texture and ethos of the piece are all dry, with lots of staccato and zig-zagging gestures, lots of space, lots of irony. Stitching it all together is a light, wry, somewhat detached percussion part … I enjoyed the performers as much as the piece. – Elissa Poole, Globe and Mail, 11 February 2009
Chatterton and Rolfe’s brisk, contemporary comedy has given [Swoon] freshness and humour. Like a good joke, this story’s pleasures are mostly in the telling, and the two authors tell it very well. Rolfe’s nimble score enhanced the script’s comic momentum from the opening bars and never let it lag, while giving the story’s more serious moments due time to unfold. His stripped-down settings always suited the text and advanced the drama. Odd as it seems, one common fault of contemporary opera composers is a failure to listen to the words and the imaginative space they reveal. Rolfe has listened with real skill and humility, and the result is an airy yet resonant score that made it easy to understand almost every word sung.
In some ways the collaboration of composer and librettist reached its peak in the opera’s least characteristic section. Leah’s erotically charged address to Ari in one of the later scenes seemed to billow up out of nowhere, and took the opera into a new zone, closer to the Song of Songs than to the wry, jazz-inflected dialogues of the work’s opening. But once it was made, this sudden shift felt right, because of the precision and poetic tone of Chatterton’s language, and the responsive cantabile temper of the music … Rolfe’s very singable vocal lines gave everyone a chance to shine. – Robert Everett-Green, Globe and Mail, 9 December 2006
[Orpheus and Eurydice] is one of the most beautiful new operas to be written recently, delivering inventive instrumentations and rhythms for recitatives while bowing to gorgeous tonal echoes of centuries past in arias and choruses. Rolfe’s final chorus and the duet between Eurydice and Orpheus deserve to be heard again and again. – John Terauds, The Toronto Star, 14 May 2004
Lilacs, a solo piano piece written for Eve Egoyan and based on Walt Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, addressed that performer’s personal taste for the abstract, the minimal and the obsessive, thus sparking Rolfe’s cerebral side. But Rolfe also exploited Egoyan’s ability to burn her intelligence into every note she plays. He gets full credit for reading Egoyan’s strengths so accurately and in providing her with a vehicle that was, in many respects, dependent upon them.
Written for Measha Brüggergosman, Six Songs is a customized vehicle for its performer. Much recalled the opera — Rolfe’s savvy with a tune, the way he (almost) buried his compositional intricacies in the accompaniment, the staging of his emotional climaxes and the hymn-like slower songs with their the shy continuo bass-lines and slow-changing triadic harmonies. And he gave Brüggergosman’s gorgeous sound, timbral palette and formidable emotional range (she can push ecstasy almost to hysteria without crossing the line) full sway. – Elissa Poole, Globe and Mail, 20 April 2001