Review: Marino Formenti plays Galina Ustvolskaya, ‘the lady with a hammer’


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Galina Ustvolskaya, who died at age 87 in 2006, was known as Russia’s angriest composer. The Dutch dubbed her “the lady with a hammer” and the label stuck. The program notes to the season’s last Monday Evening Concert, which featured her music Monday night in Zipper Concert Hall, quoted her as saying: “There is no link whatsoever between my music and that of any other composer, living or dead.” She got that one right.

A recluse, Ustvolskaya was probably as well known for her razor tongue as for her assertive, hard-hitting music, which is rarely heard in concert and is not nearly as effective on recordings as it is in the pounding, quivering flesh. I once asked some officials at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg for help in setting up an interview with her, and their expressions reminded me of Transylvanian villagers asked for directions to Count Dracula’s castle.


Ustvolskaya gets brief mention in Shostakovich biographies as having been his student, muse and most likely lover. She is reputed to have refused his proposal for marriage in the early ‘50s. “He burdened my life and killed my best feelings,” she later said of him. She was, by the way, as hard on herself as everyone else, and destroyed the official Soviet music she was forced to write in the ‘50s.

No one knows how to classify her. She has been compared to Satie, Hindemith, Bartók, Stravinsky and Messiaen. Some have tried to shoehorn her into Minimalism, Constructivism or Suprematism. I, however, would vote her president of the school of musical sadism. She liked her music percussive and deafeningly loud, with the occasional ultra quiet contrast just so another painful dose of ffffff attacks will have greater physical impact on the listener’s ear and nervous system. The piano was her main instrument, and she expected players to mercilessly beat their instruments to a pulp.

She got her wish Monday. Marino Formenti, the Italian keyboard phenom, was on hand as pianist and conductor, and he was entirely in his element. That Formenti makes everything he touches, whether new music or old, seem astonishing is well known in Los Angeles, and the hall was full.

Two Ustvolskaya piano sonatas began the program. The Fourth, from 1957, is steely and insistent but mostly not punishing and full of odd, intriguing figurations. With the Sixth, written in 1988, the lady takes out her hammer. First Formenti pounded the keys with his fists, with his palms and with his arms. Then he pounded some more, louder, faster, more percussively. Then more still, and so on. It was wild.

Formenti also led two major Ustvolskaya ensemble pieces, the Symphony No. 5 and Composition No. 2, both in their Los Angeles premieres. The symphony has the subtitle “Amen.” A speaker reads the Lord’s Prayer in Russian, accompanied by oboe, violin, trumpet, tuba and percussion. The percussion instrument was a long, wooden, coffin-sized crate whacked upon by with nasty-looking beaters. Solo instrumental lines were like shards of sonic cut glass and, in ensemble, sounded like dyspeptic Stravinsky. The recitation came across, as the composer meant it to, as a voice from the grave. Formenti conducted as he played the piano, asking for extremes of sounds and getting them from outstanding players. It too was wild.

Formenti led Composition No. 2 from the piano. The rest of the ensemble consisted of eighth double basses and, once more, the percussion coffin. And a huge hammer. The subtitle here is “Dies Irae.” The pianist clobbered the keys. The percussionist walloped the coffin. The basses lashed or thumped their strings in unison. When the instruments could take no more, a couple of quiet, weeping chords from the basses at the end signaled, I suppose, an incensed goddess’ weariness and Death’s victory. It was, needless to say, wild.


Two small pieces were inserted amid the crush of this unstoppable Russian assault, and small they seemed. Both featured a flexible percussionist, Christian Dierstein. In Austrian composer Klaus Lang’s “the whitebearded man. the six frogs,” the percussion was often in the high register and the piano down low, and all was still and meditative. Italian composer Pierluigi Billone’s ‘Mani.MATTA” for solo percussion was a romp on and around a large marimba, fun for a while, but it ran out of ideas quickly.

Still, considering that Ustvolskaya never wasted a note, never let up the tension and was possibly music’s most relentless scold, any little relief of any sort was welcome.

The Monday Evening Concerts turns 70 next week. Although the series has had its ups and downs through the years, it now thrives full of extraordinary new and exciting life. What a way to celebrate!

-- Mark Swed