Sunday, February 19, 2006

New Gubaidulina in Philadelphia

'Feast' was a rich bounty for the ears, indeed

By Peter Dobrin - Fri, Feb. 17, 2006
From the Philadelphia Inquirer

You never know quite what you're going to get when you order up a new piece of music.
You might end up with something the public loves, as was the case with Jennifer Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra. You could send the composer back to the drawing board (or just for some refinements), as the Philadelphia Orchestra did recently in postponing Bright Sheng's Zodiac Tales.
And every once in a while, if you're an orchestra that commissions often enough, you find yourself playing a role in the birth of an important piece of art, as was the case Wednesday night when the Philadelphians and Simon Rattle premiered Sofia Gubaidulina's Feast During a Plague.
Gubaidulina's 25-minute work - co-commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra with help from the Pew Charitable Trusts - is proof that great ideas transcend issues of style. The work is up there on the dissonance meter, but it is so startlingly original, so aesthetically singular, that it captures your attention solidly from its opening strident brass fanfare to an emotionally equivocating end.
The orchestra played with stunning assurance (as it did the Walton Symphony No. 1). But the glaring feature that most listeners will remember is the shimmering climax that got jolted by the sound of a car stereo driving by Verizon Hall. Its beat was so loud it punctured our safe orchestral-sound preserve. More orchestral music. More dance-club music. More orchestral music. And so on.
It wasn't a passing car on Broad Street, of course. It was a taped sound source playing through the hall's speakers, something the composer wrote into the score. Musical interlopers are hardly new. Berio did it in his Sinfonia from 1968, quoting wildly from other sources (most prominently, Mahler). Thomas Ad├Ęs, the young English composer, weaves short-hand references to other music into Arcadiana (1994) for string quartet.
Composer as curator, as arranger of cultural references to make a particular point, is a recognized role.
What, then, was the 74-year-old Russian-born composer Gubaidulina trying to say? Her answer is in notes to the score - whose core idea, unfortunately, is barely hinted at in program notes. Gubaidulina's plague is "the lowering of the moral level of society and the buildup of hatred in our souls." Her feast is the "fact that a large segment of people want nothing more than to feast and make merry."
Explosion between the two forces is inevitable - the "slashes into the orchestral fabric of alien, aggressive, simplistic rhythmic interjections that have been produced using a computer." Soon after, percussion delivered in slightly slowing strikes sounds like the apocalypse.
Gubaidulina writes that it is not the artist's job to judge, just to create a realistic view. "If there is one, there is hope," she says. Regeneration has rarely been given so vivid a musical casting. It comes in the guise of upwardly slithering bass clarinet figures - quiet, bubbling, like strands of DNA looking to rebuild in a new form.
Dissonant music, yes. But far from abstract, and endlessly meaningful.

Additional concerts: "Feast During a Plague" is repeated tonight and tomorrow night at 8 - but paired with Brahms' "Symphony No. 4" (rather than the Walton "Symphony No. 1," which was previously reviewed in these pages; see review online at

Rattle's Brahms: Sound of things to come?

By David Patrick Stearns - Sat, Feb. 18, 2006
From the Philadelphia Inquirer

The perpetually youthful conductor Simon Rattle isn't someone you'd think to associate with grand-old-man performances. He's the ever-inquisitive, let's-try-this musician, with results that can feel brilliant but provisional.
This was not the case with Rattle's Thursday performance of Brahms' Symphony No. 4. That piece dominated the final program of his Philadelphia Orchestra guest-conducting residency at the Kimmel Center and was a preview of what might be regularly in store for Rattle admirers in years ahead.
Though full of his characteristic probing energy, the interpretation grasped hands with tradition, both validating and transforming it. That rare quality was most apparent in the midst of the first movement's development section. Every motif had a sense of consolidated insight that gave the impression Rattle had been directly conferring with the composer and knew what to do with a certainty that's seldom found anywhere in this world. Usual points of discussion (tempo, loudness, etc.) were irrelevant.
Rattle reminded you that this particular Brahms symphony is a monumental marriage of ultimate formal rigor and ultimate creative freedom. No matter how neatly the preestablished forms bring things full circle, Rattle's way of touching the symphony's molten core came with a sense of progression that kept the piece moving into new emotional ground. Though thematic transformations arrived with unshakable logic, their destinations seemed perpetually unknown, even if you'd heard the piece hundreds of times. Formal outlines ceased to be sentries of correctness; instead they were but musical launching pads.
Having happily encountered Rattle with his regular orchestra, the lustrous though high-turnover Berlin Philharmonic, I'd bet that his chemistry with the Philadelphians is more fruitful. Though a New World orchestra, the Philadelphia and its tenures under Germanic paragons such as Christoph Eschenbach and especially Wolfgang Sawallisch may help place Rattle that much closer to a history he could embody with his rich personality.

The Brahms was heralded by Sofia Gubaidulina's new, single-movement Feast During a Plague; I'm not the first critic to love it and won't be the last. Though Gubaidulina's apocalyptic message can all but dissolve typical methods of musical construction, this unusually direct piece has numerous references to classic symphonic format with specifically colored, often-repeated groups of themes. Once development was under way, new elements arrived (an old Mozart technique) in the form of extreme treble sounds that infected the rest of the orchestra.
With those kinds of formal expectations, the arrival of a mechanized, prerecorded rhythm track
uncoordinated with the rest of the piece was all the more arresting. The recapitulation was similarly penetrating because the bass drum, which initially projected the measured beat of a funeral train, made feeble attempts to ape the mechanized rhythm track. Ultimately, the piece inhabited the oddest of zones between sensual delirium and spiritual transfiguration. What other composer can do - or has done - that?

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