Contempo gives Russian master worthy 80th birthday tribute
August 8, 2012
By John von Rhein, Classical music critic
How odd that the music of Sofia Gubaidulina, generally considered to be the most important composer to have emerged from the former Soviet Union since Shostakovich, turns up so infrequently in performance — as opposed to recordings, where it’s well represented.
So the concert presented by Contempo in honor of Gubaidulina’s 80th birthday season, Wednesday night at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, carried a rightful sense of occasion, with performances worthy of a widely respected contemporary figure who, last June, became the first composer ever to be awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Chicago.
Gubaidulina, who has long made her home in Germany, was unable to attend the concert, for the same health-related reasons that have prevented her from completing a new chamber work she is composing expressly for the Contempo series. Indeed, that same piece, “Pilgrimage of Four,” was to have been premiered at Wednesday’s concert.
Instead, the program offered by Contempo resident ensembles eighth blackbird (fresh from its Grammy win earlier this week) and the Pacifica Quartet, with guest artists, contained three older Gubaidulina instrumental and vocal works the composer herself selected for this program.
Like her fellow avant-garde expatriates Edison Denisov and the late Alfred Schnittke, Gubaidulina has seized on the bleakness and stark simplicities of the late Shostakovich works and built an aesthetic around them. In her music are combined the intensity of late Soviet-era composition and a feverish spirituality drawing on Catholic and Orthodox elements, often taking on a mystical, mournful cast. The paradox is that music of such ecstatic power should appear so quiet and withdrawn on the surface.
The most gripping of Wednesday’s works was the 1983 “Perception,” a nearly hour-long cantata for soprano, baritone and septet of strings, based on texts by the German poet Francisco Tanzer. The 13 songs and interludes obey their own internal logic, forming a dramatic, at times melodramatic, continuity of dazzling textural variety. Through song, speech and a combination of the two known as Sprechstimme, the singers interact with each other, their pre-recorded selves and the sometimes furious clashes, chatterings and buzzings of the seven strings, acoustical and electronic.
The dialogues exist on several levels, most particularly that of body and soul, in a way that suggests a modern analogue to the sacred cantatas of J.S. Bach. But while Gubaidulina’s rigorously constructed music theater piece withholds easy aural balm, it rewards listeners’ patience with an otherworldly music quite unlike any other being written today. Wednesday’s audience paid “Perception” the respect of close attention.
Tony Arnold and Ricardo Rivera were the able singers, both amazingly precise of musical and verbal gesture, though one would have preferred fewer histrionics from the baritone. With no conductor available to take charge of the performance, Arnold herself and various instrumentalists took turns beating time. They kept the ensemble together seamlessly, a remarkable achievement given the score’s density and difficulty. The string players covered themselves with glory, none more so than violinist Simin Ganatra at the top of the sound spectrum and double bassist Collins Trier at the bottom.
The program’s other big work, “Garden of Joy and Sorrow” (1980), sent Tim Munro’s flute spiralling over the dour plunks of Alison Attar’s harp and the soft viola harmonics of Masumi Per Rostad. The intensities rose and fell, building to a climax of frenzied pizzicatos and cluster tones before winding down to delicate whispers of viola. The work’s spare surface makes it hard to distinguish joy from sorrow, but it, too, proved a musical journey worth taking.
“In Croce” was heard in its 1991 version for cello and bayan, a Russian accordion. The instruments approach each other almost furtively, from opposite registers; when their lines cross, it provokes a furious climax, giving way to a dying fall of the cello’s slithering over the bayan’s toneless murmurs. The committed performers were Brandon Vamos on cello and Stanislav Venglevski on bayan.