Music review: A Sofia Gubaidulina festival at REDCAT


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Sofia Gubaidulina, the mysterious Russian-Tartar composer, will be 80 in October. But she appeared, at concerts of her works at REDCAT Monday and Tuesday, ageless, childlike still in her capacity to write music of wonder yet, once and always, a wise sage.

These were two of the five concerts CalArts has been presenting this week. On Thursday night she moves on to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which included her 2008 concerto, “Glorious Percussion,” as part of Gustavo Dudamel’s “Brahms Unbound” festival.


A listener would be foolish to try to pin Gubaidulina down. Her music vacillates between firm footing in history and flight from it. She reveres Bach and Schubert, whom she readily quotes and deconstructs in her scores. She is also an untamable avant-gardist (which caused her to run afoul of the Soviet authorities in the 1970s and eventually immigrate to Hamburg, Germany). A devout orthodox Christian, her music promotes a spiritual message. Another side of her is an immersion in mystical mathematics: She assigns specific colors to precise rhythmic proportions.

Yet she will never be caught obeying rules that suppress her emotional instincts. Her music can be simple or complex, dissonant or consonant, contrapuntal or not -- just about anything or not -- and all within a few bars. A fine percussionist with a love for folk instruments, she is known to be a questing improviser. She likes weird instrumental combinations, and her sound worlds are bizarre and mesmerizing. She takes herself deadly serious but is not without a sense of humor.

That CalArts could convey all that in the two concerts I attended was an extraordinary accomplishment. On Monday night, the program looked at Gubaidulina’s too-little-appreciated impish side. Tuesday was reserved for Gubaidulina the devout, ending with “Offertorium,” her remarkable large-scale 1980 violin concerto that catapulted her to international prominence.

The division between a Gubaidulina yin and yang those two nights was far from absolute. But the unexpected amusing oddities did pile up Monday in pieces like “Witty Waltzing in the Style of Johann Strauss,” in which a string quartet, bass and piano convey a funny fright in the Vienna Woods. In “Repentance,” three guitars slide with focused abandon, while a cello and bass have very different things to say. Gubaidulina loves the bassoon, and it was the clown when combined with viola and piano in her “Quasi Hoquetus,” though a clown who seems to say truths no one else dares. The big piece on the program was Impromptu, a double concerto for flute, violin and string ensemble. It is a tribute to Schubert, and the violinist, violist, pianist and conductor Mark Menzies, who put the Gubaidulina festival together, preceded Gubaidulina’s Impromptu with Schubert’s Impromptu, Opus 90, No. 4, for solo piano.

The piano may be the one thing Menzies isn’t good at, and he played Schubert clumsily. Perhaps his intent was to start taking the impromptu apart in preparation for Gubaidulina to rebuild rhapsodic new assemblages. The superb soloists -- flutist Sarah Hodges and violinist Lorenz Gamma -- were accompanied by a student ensemble, which was strongly conducted by Menzies.

Tuesday night’s program contained three major works written in the ‘70s, Gubaidulina’s most dissident Soviet period. Menzies began by conducting Introitus, a piano concerto that is resonant and otherworldly. Richard Valitutto was the soloist, building vast cathedrals of sound from single melodic lines.


“Detto II” is a small cello concerto, meditative yet angst-filled. Gubaidulina always seems to have Mstislav Rostropovich’s warmly booming intensity in her ear when writing for cello. Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick brought something new, richness and heat but also the kind of quick musical responses that made the changeable score feel properly unsettled until it finally settled into satisfying stasis.

Menzies was the soloist in “Offertorium.” The small stage was crammed to the rafters with a large orchestra made up of CalArts students, a few faculty and members of wild Up, a lively orchestra that plays in clubs in Silver Lake. Christopher Rountree, wild Up’s 27-year-old founder, conducted with infectious enthusiasm. Menzies was the highly dramatic and highly virtuosic soloist.

In her 35-minute masterpiece, Gubaidulina asks Bach’s “royal theme” from his “Musical Offering” to preside over a new offering for a new world with old spiritual needs, to find calm center in unsettled surroundings. Heard in close quarters by fresh and eager youth, it was magnificent.

Taking her bow with the players afterward, a sprightly and elegant Gubaidulina beamed, looking almost in disbelief. But she was kidding no one. She has long been a shamanistic master of turning disbelief into belief in her music.


Los Angeles plays host to Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina


-- Mark Swed