Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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In croce

May 16, 2007

Sofia Gubaidulina
Tonight was the final program of the season for the LA Philharmonic’s New Music Group and it was another big success in a year of brilliant “Green Umbrella” shows. (Including shows dedicated to the works of Brett Dean, John Adams, Salonen, and Gerald Barry’s The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit.) This evening was ostensibly the second program in the “Shadow of Stalin” series, but in a strange bit of sequencing, it actually focused on composers from the Soviet Union who came of age in the late 20th century after Stalin’s fall from power. The focus here was on how political oppression and self-censorship continued to prevail even in the post-Stalin “thaw.” The program, which was helmed by Associate Conductor Alexander Mickelthwate, included two works by Sofia Gubaidulina, Concordanza and In croce, as well as Alfred Schnittke’s Symphony No. 4.

These works were selected in part in how they dealt with spiritual or religious motifs in a closeted manner. I know that the “closet” metaphor is over-used to the point of meaninglessness these days, but here I think it actually fits. There was something that I really identified and sympathized with in these works where spiritual themes and elements were changed or disguised in order to pass inspection by a broader disapproving political structure. Thus, the vocal lines in Schnittke’s symphony are not from Ave Maria as he may have actually intended, but instead become shapeless vocalizations. One can feel the emotion there beneath the surface trapped and struggling, in a way masquerading as something else.
Alfred Schnittke
It is in a way simultaneously sad and beautiful. The symphony, which was clearly the highlight of the evening, involved a small ensemble of 7 strings, winds, percussion, celesta, harpsichord, piano, and four vocalists. It consists of 15 smaller sections grouped in three sets of five in a way meant to suggest a sort-of rosary. Calling this piece a symphony, when in many ways it is clearly not, also recalls other great symphonic works with vocal components, perhaps including most directly Shostakovich’s own Symphony No. 14 – a setting of several different death-related poems for two vocalists and a small ensemble.

Gubaidulina works held marvels of their own. Gubaidulina , of course, is much more known for the spiritual content of her work and that was certainly reflected here. Of particular interest, In croce for solo cello and organ was a strange twist on a small chamber piece where issues of power and weakness seemed thrust to the forefront. Playing in this work is clearly as much about the restraint of power, as in its use with an organ that can clearly sonically overwhelm the lone cello. Each player focuses on opposing sequences in the upper or lower part of their instrument's range, slowly moving toward each other tone-wise until they cross and then eventually moving away. Thus they are simultaneously not only "on the cross" but "in crossing." Overall it was a nice end to this season's "new music" programming.

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