SOFIA GUBAIDULINA: A PORTRAIT reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

November 28, 2006
New Music Concerts presents
Sofia Gubaidulina: A Portrait
Glenn Gould Studio

Guest artists: Friedrich Lips, bayan; Patricia Green, mezzo-soprano; Michael Schulte, solo violin.

The public…comes to the concert to get impressions. The public strives for spiritual work. And it applauds composers and performers for presenting something that allows people to experience a state of concentration, to bring themselves into a state of wholeness, to cure themselves from the state of dispersal and disconnection that they suffer in everyday life.” Sofia Asgatovna Gubaidulina

Robert Aitken—flute, Steven Dann—viola, and Erica Goodman—harp, presented Gubaidulina’s “The Garden of Joys and Sorrows (1980/93)”. The players spun solo threads: the flute lyrical in a Debussyesqe way, but insistent and insinuating, the harp brittle, and the viola squeaking as if rusted. There follow passages sliding into unison as the tempo increases, giving the sense of the scurry of panicking creatures. The voice of the viola appeals for calm, the flute relaxes into lyrical meanderings, but the harp remains in distress, uttering a noisy jangle. An internal rhythm surfaces, almost like a donkey-trot, that soothes before rising panic and turmoil prevail momentarily, then subside into less dense textures, dissolve into unison and harmony and the clarity of silence. From that silence arises a concluding seven-note motif that sounded to me like a bugler’s “Reveille”. Into our awakened state, Steven Dann speaks these words from the “Diary” of Francisco Tanzer:

When is it really over? What is the true ending?
All borders are like a line drawn with a stick
of wood or the heel of a shoe in the sand.
Up here…there’s the borderline: All this is artificial.
Tomorrow we play another game.

As an interlude in the evening’s exploration of Russian spiritual struggle, we had Abigail Richardson’s concerto for violin and string quartet in three movements entitled “Upstream (2006)”, written for her husband, Michael Schulte who performed the solo violin part. Ms. Richardson, an affiliate composer with the TSO, writes:

“I think of ‘Upstream’ in several different ways: the individual moves against a current, sometimes with the current, sometimes faster. Sometimes the individual (being the violinist, of course) is witnessed from a different perspective, upstream—visible from a distance and getting gradually closer until arriving and suddenly disappearing. The violin actively fuels the current of flows along with it.”

The world of “Upstream” is dramatic, but in a charming way, full of pleasant contrasts and humour. Michael Schulte’s violin sings into the lyrical opening section. Later, he leads a fiddling solo and response pattern that recalls the broad pastoral canvas of Aaron Copeland. There follows an up-tempo pizzicato section that recalls the bouncy bits of early Shostakovich string quartets, but without the paranoia, underlined in dark strokes by Peter Pavlovsky’s bass. Schulte’s cadenza, improvised by himself, stands out distinctly from the ensemble’s dialogue. Occasionally, the piece develops a sameness of texture and colouration, a predictability of phrasing that mutes one’s pleasure, but those moments dissolve and the interest returns.

The evening was generously filled out after intermission by two major works, “Silenzio (1991)”, and “Hommage a T.S. Eliot, 1987/91”. The latter work, in seven movements, is richly scored for an octet and featured Patricia Green singing the recitation of Gubaidulina’s selection from Eliot’s “Four Quartets”. Horn (Joan Watson) and winds (Max Christie, Clarinet and, Kathleen McLean, bassoon) allowed the music to resound in a more voluminous dimension. Patricia Green’s rich voice added the authority of utterance, be it benediction, doom, or blessing.

Since this portrait of Gubaidulina has emerged due to Robert Aitken’s experience with her, let him have the last words.

“She went her own way, which is both extremely personal and extremely Russian…The national temperament never knows if it’s happy or sad…And sometimes the music she writes is very scary.

It takes you into a world that won’t allow you to be happy…You are going to notice a lot of texture. She does that a lot. But she has a very special way that makes it recognizable. You know immediately—that’s her. What she writes is stream of consciousness in texture. Like the drip, drip, drip of raindrops. It keeps your attention because you never know when the next raindrop is going to come.

The other thing she does in almost every piece is a kind of exploratory, stretching chromaticism…It’s like a kind of religious ecstasy—that climbing and reaching, reaching and straining to the top [of the chromatic scale]. She makes it to the top, and then comes the incredible, for us, relaxation. I think she satisfies the need of contemporary audiences to have contemporary music you can understand. Very often, contemporary audiences are frustrated because you can’t really understand what’s going on. She stretches you and gets you up there, but you do understand.
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