Contempo honors Gubaidulina with compelling performances
August 8, 2012
By Jesse McQuarters, critic
With characteristic élan and zealous dedication to the cause, University of Chicago resident ensemble Contempo dedicated their Harris Theater concert last night to the music of Sofia Gubaidulina. Like her mentor Dimitri Shostakovich, Gubaidulina forged an independent musical path despite disapproval from Soviet officials and censors, eventually emerging as one of the leaders of Russian music in the 20th century. In recent decades, her compositions have become even more widely known, with artists like Gidon Kremer and Anne-Sophie Mutter championing her works and prominent features at the Proms and Stuttgart Bach Academy introducing her music to new audiences.
Like Bach, the composer to whom Gubaidulina is perhaps most dedicated, her music has an inherent spiritualism, manifested over a wide tonal palette. Sometimes it’s most present in Pärt-like mystical minimalism and static textures, while elsewhere it’s more outward and more fervent, with Sprechstimme text pleading for salvation. At other times, Gubaidulina’s spiritualism glides beneath the surface, an ever-present force that shapes her musical language but isn’t necessarily expressed through text or direct references.
This is the case in Garden of Joy and Sorrow, which Contempo flutist Tim Munro opened with a series of ever-widening flute arabesques that tumbled over atmospheric harmonics played by violist Masumi Per Rostad and otherworldly vibrato effects given by harpist Alison Attar. The trio’s broad pointillistic texture recalls Webern in its succinctness and restraint, characteristics that Gubaidulina found appealing in her literary inspirations for the work (Iv Oganov’s Sayat-Nova and Francisco Tanzer’s poetry). This focus on single musical elements was broken only a few times by the ensemble roaring forth together, a mighty force that diminished to just the viola in its extreme upper register by the piece’s conclusion.
Scored for cello and the bayan–a Russian accordion developed in the early 20th century– Gubaidulina’s In Croce depicts a musical cruciform, with the two instruments approaching each other at seemingly right angles, intersecting, and continuing on their original path, newly altered. This concept is nothing new–Bach’s B Minor Mass, for example, is filled with chiasmus–but Gubaidulina’s approach is singular. The cello’s declamatory and leaping opening is in direct contrast to the bayan’s semitone drone and flitting upper register forays.
Gradually, as the bayan progresses on its long-term journey to the depths of its register, the two instruments meet with aggressive music of great conflict. The interaction develops into a less adversarial and more conversational relationship, and they continue on their opposing journeys. Just when it seems as if they’ve reached the extreme limits of their instruments, cellist Brandon Vamos joined bayan player Stanislav Venglevski with a mighty downward slide.
An ideal closing piece that brought a satisfying conclusion to Contempo’s concert, Sofia Gubaidulina’s Perception is collection of thirteen movements for soprano, baritone and strings set to texts by Francisco Tanzer. Though baritone Ricardo Rivera teetered on the edge of being overtheatrical at times, all the musicians on stage attacked this music with boundless energy and an insatiable appetite for expression. Interesting elements in the text- such as the juxtaposition of a supplicating soprano (Tony Arnold) in “Am Meer” with interjections of a more earthly nature, or the repeated-syllable wordplay of “Ich und du”- were presented faithfully and clearly, allowing for recurring themes in the text to be readily understood. Perhaps most rewardingly, Perception touches on elements present in Garden and In Croce, highlighting both Contempo’s intelligent programming as well as Sofia Gubaidulina’s multifaceted depth as a composer.