As Sofia Gubaidulina joins the ranks of octogenarian composers, ensembles find themselves with a wealth of compositions to choose from when celebrating her irresistibly transcendent body of music—a catalog that promises to leave an indelible impression for generations to come. Gubaidulina’s international renown, accolades, and concert celebrations are well deserved. Chicago’s contribution toward applauding this Russian composer came in the form of an honorary degree from the University of Chicago and an evening of her music performed by the Contempo Ensemble at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. While Contempo was unable to present a new collaborative piece by the composer due to health and time constraints, the three works offered on the program presented a glimpse into an oeuvre of devastatingly beautiful works that speak to both a profound sense of humanity and spiritual aspirations.
The celebration continued Contempo’s 46-year tradition of performing works by living composers at a high level of excellence. The University of Chicago-based ensemble is regarded as one of the anchors of the new music community in Chicago and one of the premier ensembles in the country. Their love and dedication to both the emotional and cerebral qualities of Gubaidulina’s music was on full display for their celebration concert. The spoken introductions before each piece spanned a range of personal anecdotes and brief academic presentations were a thoughtful and heartfelt match to the brilliant aesthetic that reverberated within the composed works that were performed from the same stage. The passion that Gubaidulina inspires was communicated along multiple levels over the course of the evening and it was easy to recognize why her music is so inspiring.
Garden of Joy and Sorrow (1980) is a work that scales toward the heavens upon the pitches of the harmonic series. The wispy appearances of that “natural” sequence of intervals found itself balanced delicately against a dissonant field of minor seconds. It achieves its resonance through sparse textures and a brilliant use of restraint. Composed for viola, harp, and flute as a single-movement work, it is a clear expression of the balance between formal structure and intuitive detail that is found in much of Gubaidulina’s music. The harp often takes on the qualities of a koto, suggesting a balance between Eastern and Western sensibilities in this music as well.
In Croce (1979) is a startling synthesis of multiple compositional impulses found in 20th-century composition. This duet for cello and bayan (a Russian accordion) makes use of a singular sense of form through process, while leaving plenty of space for unexpected details in its realization. The piece begins with the Bayan playing a tremolo of notes at its highest register over drones from the cello at its lowest register and eventually works toward a reversal of these two roles between the instruments, forming a study of crossing registers. Like Garden of Joy and Sorrow, there is a striking clarity of the intervallic content that allows the listener to trace its harmonic logic throughout. The way the music moves seamlessly between notated material and structured improvisation using graphic notation is a testament to both its compositional polish and the considerable talent cellist Brandon Vamos and bayanist Stanislav Venglevski brought to its performance. These were further enhanced by the soaring crescendos that highlighted the timbral interplay between these two instruments. In Croce shows off one of Gubaidulina’s most startling qualities with the range of textural diversity found within the relatively narrow constraints of its formal structure. The way it shifts between moments of contemplative meditation and moments of explosive energy maintains a sense of unpredictability within a clear formal shape, offering up a compelling coexistence of intuition and system within a single work of music. Sofia Gubaidulina makes use of deft brush strokes along her canvas with an ear for sublime contrasts.
The highlight of the evening was Perception (1983), a large-scale work for soprano, baritone, and strings featuring poetry by Francisco Tanzer and excerpts from the Psalms. Again, this piece showcased Gubaidulina’s sense of textural variation with music that could shift from glassy to dramatic in an instant while maintaining a strong sense of compositional continuity. With the larger ensemble, she expands this technique to allow for dramatic shifts between instrument combinations and exposed vocal solos. The textural qualities of the piece were even further enhanced by the addition of pre-recorded materials performed by the same ensemble to emphasize the work’s sense of expansiveness. These were used sparingly toward the end of the work with the relatively dry reverberation of the recorded material contrasting noticeably with the spatial presence of the live ensemble on stage. Another striking moment was the pizzicato movement that featured the full string ensemble strumming their instruments to rich harmonic effect. Perception was a tour de force of extended string techniques combined with exquisite Sprechstimme in the soprano and baritone parts. It is a complex work that requires extensive concentration by the performers. It was well rehearsed and beautifully performed.
As a celebration, this concert made a powerful argument for Sofia Gubaidulina’s significant contributions to new music with just a small sample of her works. Each piece of hers that reaches these ears has reinforced that impression. Concerts such as this suggest that entire festivals of Gubaidulina’s music would still leave listeners craving more. Let us hope that there are many more celebrations in store to recognize this fantastic composer.