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Shamans and Angels

New York
Miller Theater, Columbia University
02/09/2013 -  
Sofia Gubaidulina: Trio – Meditation on the Bach Chorale “Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit” – Concordanza – Concerto for Bassoon and Low Strings

Rebekah Heller (Bassoon), David Bowlin (Violin) Maiya Papach (Viola), Kivie Kahn-Lipman (Cello)
Other members of International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Christian Knapp (Conductor)

S. Gubaidulina (© Mike Kepta)

In her 80 years on this earth, Sofia Gubaidulina, has made contact with more than a few segments of infinity. Her forebears–Tatar, Russian, Islamic, Russian Orthodox–aspire both to the heavens and the shamans. Her musical Guardian Angel, Johann Sebastian Bach, a humble amanuensis to Saint Cecilia. Her human protector from Soviet Bureaucrats, was Dmitri Shostakovich, and when the Soviets criticized her, he commanded her to continue on her “mistaken path.”

An entire evening devoted to Ms. Gubaidulina in Columbia University’s Miller theater last night attracted a full house which was seduced from the first notes on. I had never heard any of this music played in New York, and the YouTube recordings gave scant indication of her multifarious powers.

The works ranged from the most profound religious statement issued out of musical chaos to a jaunty concerto, from a Trio of argument and reconciliation to an orchestral work for ten members of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE).

C. Knapp (© John Naumann)

This was Concordanza, a neologistic title for ensemble conducted by Christian Knapp, which, in twelve minutes included, yes, concord, yes, dances, but a variety of fugues, canons, and the most unique singular colors. This, in fact, is one of Ms. Gubaidulina’s temptations, to which she always succumbs. Like Haydn and Berlioz, she is never orthodox. Does she want a horn and clarinet to play over some high strings with a few “high-hat” cymbals? Then let it be. Does she want her string players to play fluttering glissandos with percussion playing descants? Fine.

Perhaps her only homage to Shostakovich was a wicked march parody toward the end which the elder Russian would have loved to call his own.

The opening Trio had all the Gubaidulina string trademarks. Microtones, tremolos, buzzing, snapping pizzicatos, and harmonics galore. But each movement had the motivation of argument and concordance, fighting, snapping, playing almost in tune (those microtones again!)

By any means, the one work which was more moving than I could bear was Mr. Gubaidulina’s Meditation on the Bach Chorale “Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit”. The YouTube recording with which I initiated myself was pleasant. The full live work here was that one piece of infinity for which the composer had aspired. The piece began with a kind of chaos, starting with harpsichord, continuing with string quintet and then a double-bass solo with the first line of the chorale.

The entire ensemble continued with but hints of that chorale, until the miracle happened. First, the entire chorale played in thirds by cello and bass, then violin and viola repeating that, but with a drone resembling the Russian Orthodox chorales with the Metropolitan (the priest-bass) overtopping the higher voices.

In the detailed program notes by Paul Griffiths, mention is made of the symbolic numerology and chords, but nothing could be further from the spiritual impact of this work. The ICE soloists, in fact, were so compelling that I cannot ever imagine listening to this on a mere recording.

R. Heller (© ICE)

The final work had a distinctly saturnine moniker, Concerto for Bassoon and Low Strings, the latter, four solo celli and three solo double-basses. Yet nothing glowered in this five-movement work, which started on a high bassoon note, continued with a trumpet-like reveille (the original dedicatee had originally been a trumpet player), continued with a wildly frenetic movement for those low strings, the three double basses crazily beginning with some chaconnes, fugues, and going on with the cellos to more extravagant playing.

That word “playing” was meant both as performing and having a thoroughly good time before Rebekah Heller, part of ICE itself, finished with a bi-toned cadenza and a terrifically dramatic, if momentarily tragic finale. Next to the more intense pieces, this could have been a bit too lengthy (with the same microtonal strings that became a little wearing toward the end of the program). But Ms. Heller is a splendid performer, not only having a good time with her instrument but, under conductor Knapp, joining a characteristically unique and jubilant ensemble.

Harry Rolnick



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