Mark Menzies and Sofia Gubaidulina Photo: mine 2011
Los Angeles has been host to one of the world’s greatest living composers this week, Sofia Gubaidulina. Her story is almost as fascinating as her music. Born in the Tatar Republic of the USSR in 1931, Gubaidulina later studied music in Moscow in the 1950s receiving support from the likes of Shostakovich who knew a good thing when he saw it. He reportedly also knew that the young Gubaidulina’s vision would not win her accolades in Stalin’s world, and she spent the next few decades struggling as did other composers for not conforming to a prescribed artistic agenda. While creating her bracing and unconventional sound world, she worked in other venues producing a variety of film scores to get by. Eventually as political realities changed, Gubaidulina was first allowed to travel abroad in the mid-1980s and with the advocacy of such artists as Gidon Kremer, her international reputation took off. Now in 2011, she is one of he most unique and uncompromising musical artists working, and her appearances are rare and special occasions to be savored. She is in Los Angeles in part for the performance of Glorious Percussion,
which will be included in a program along with a Brahms symphony with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this weekend.
But before this, there were four shows in three days dedicated entirely to Gubaidulina’s works performed by the faculty and students of CalArts at the REDCAT
space downtown. The shows covered an overwhelming array of her work, touching on most of her major recurrent themes and techniques. The pieces ranged from solo and chamber works to full-scale orchestra concertos all performed under her watchful eye. The excitement during these shows was frequently palpable with young musicians in awe of working with a living legend and receiving direct feedback from her. There was a special feeling that suggested this was much more than just a concert series, but a collaborative labor of love and mutual discovery.
Gubaidulina’s sound world is marked by its own logic. She is fascinated with percussion as well as ethnic folk instruments; and even in her writing for traditional western instrumentation, she will tend to treat most instruments as if they were percussion, pressing the sound they produce to the boundaries of what they are designed to do. Bassoons wail with a reedy strain and piano keyboards are pounced upon with forearms. She writes works featuring unusual combinations of instruments as well, such as 1977’s Lamento
for tuba and piano or her 1975 Concerto for Bassoon and Low Strings
featuring four cellos and three basses. Musicians who don't often see virtuoso pieces for their particular instruments have a love for Gubaidulina's tendency to shine a light on their particular corner of the sound world. Perhaps the most striking example of this to my ear was the Duo Sonata for Two Bassoons
from 1977, which was performed by Archibald Carey and Julia Feves in the Sunday evening program. The two got a workout playing contrasting material filled with multiphonics and microtonal scales. And although her music is filled with spiritual overtones not unlike those of Messiaen, it can also be abrasive and disquieting at times.
Mark Menzies, Christopher Rountree and the CalArts Orchestra Photo: mine 2011
But Gubaidulina is not without a sense of humor and play. The first evening featured 14 miniatures from 1969’s Musical Toys
that resemble Kurtág’s Jatekok
. These are somewhat serious small games, however, and even music that is ostensibly intended for children can reveal a darker undertone. The first program of the series also featured two animated short films featuring Gubaidulina’s score for the tales from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book
. Here, Kipling’s jungle takes on a surreal quality where a sense of danger is omnipresent even in the more lighthearted moments. Gubaidulina is equally unafraid to highlight her musical influences and her debt to Webern and Shostakovich among others bleeds through time and again. She plays games with other composers more directly, which was evidenced in Monday’s program with Willy Waltzing in the Style of Johann Strauss,
which, as promised, tilts some of the most user-friendly of all works on their heads. That same evening brought the composer’s take on Bach and a fascinating piano, bassoon and viola trio, Quasi Hoquetus
Over the course of the four programs, the musical works grew in complexity and orchestration from solo and chamber works to the three major concertos on Tuesday’s program. And appropriately, the building tension paid off with a huge reward in the closing full orchestra performance of Gubaidulina’s violin concerto Offertorium
with soloist Mark Menzies and the full force of the CalArts Orchestra. I was most taken with the wide range of styles and structure over the three concertos that evening, which began with the 1978 piano concerto Introitus
. Here the piano solo is intentionally non-virtuoso providing a meditative backdrop of chords to more flashy outbursts from individual players and groups in the larger orchestra. Richard Valitutto gave an intense performance of this most unassuming of solo parts. After this, the cello concerto Detto II
flipped the relationship from Introitus
with Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick taking over a very expressive solo part that settled in contrast to the chamber sized-orchestra group that struggle to find their peace in the onslaught of the soloist, never quite finishing any of the thoughts they start. But the highlight of the evening—and the whole festival—came with the concluding performance of the richly textured Offertorium
. The staccato and jittery violin is often swept away in dark waves of sound from the larger ensemble which was enthusiastically conducted by Christopher Rountree. Huge crescendos are met with stuttering anxiety and individual instruments from the orchestra often get to speak their mind. Menzies’ playing was athletic and viscerally engaging. Here the full force of Gubaidulina’s ideas about faith and music are on display in a work as moving as anything Messiaen wrote. It can be surprisingly lyrical in slashes, but it is filled with the sacrifice suggested by the title as a more general rule. It was thrilling to watch the force of this sound fill the small REDCAT space, and the conclusion was met with a sense of jubilation both in the audience and the face of the composer who embraced many of the players. At times, it was hard to believe that this sweet looking, unassuming older woman had produced such magnificent and sometimes dark and challenging music. But not only had she done this, she had often done so in the most untenable circumstances for a large part of her life. And for at least three days, L.A. and the musicians of REDCAT were lucky enough to have her in their midst sharing a significant part of her legacy with all of us in the flesh.
Labels: REDCAT 10/11