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Last Night in L.A.: Gubaidulina and Schnittke

One of the treats of the Los Angeles Philharmonic programming in recent years has been a series of related concerts on a particular theme of 20th and 21st century music.  The theme might be a composer (Schoenberg, Stravinsky), or it might be a style (minimalism).  This year’s special theme has been “Shadow of Stalin”:  music of the Soviet Union before, during, and after the controls placed on music style and content.  A nice range of programs has been established: five programs by Philharmonic musicians; a symposium; two films; an all-night re-mix with visuals; contemporary underground pops; and a youth orchestra concert.

Last night’s Green Umbrella concert took the sub-theme “Music After the Thaw”.  The first half of the program comprised two works by Sofia Gubaidulina.  The early “Concordanza” (1971), written when she was 40, is a masterful chamber work for four strings, five winds and percussion.  While it is one of the few published works written before she was 50, the sheer control of language and technique expressed in the work (and the sheer volume of work published after she was 60), makes me wonder about all of those unpublished works that had to have lived in her mind before she was able to communicate more openly.  “In Croce” (1979) has several allowed versions:  for cello and button accordian (bayan), for various instruments, and for cello and organ, which was performed last night.  I was blown away.  Most of the recordings seem to be for cello and bayan, but I found one clip for cello and organ, which approximates what I heard in Disney Hall last night.  Ben Hong on cello and Mark Robson on the WDCH organ made this pairing of instruments a beautiful thing to hear.

The last half of the concert was Alfred Schnittke’s “Symphony No. 4″ (1984), a 42-minute work in one movement, a work that deserves multiple hearings to begin understanding its patterns.  The work is written for 9 strings (2 vn1, 2vn2, 2va, 2vn, 1cb); 7 winds (f, o, c, b, h, tr, tb); 4 percussionists on pitched percussion; plus celeste, harpsichord, and piano; and vocal quartet (satb) with important solos by tenor and mezzo.  The work has an attractive surface of sounds; it seems quite accessible.  But beneath the surface are slow, repeated, medidative ideas.  These ideas are restrained; they seem to remain private at first meeting.  The vocal line is without words; the original text, a setting of Ave Maria, was removed to avoid censorship of the work.  Certainly this (and other Schnittke works) provide guidance as to the general nature of the meditations in the music, but understanding would come only with familiarity, I think.  I’ll find a version to listen to; it seems to deserve more hearings.

Alexander Mickelthwaite, the Phil’s outgoing Associate Conductor, did his usual fine job in leading the ensemble works that began and ended the program.


Comment from zeno
Time: May 17, 2007, 5:36 pm

Alfred Schnittke, in fact, talked at length, in an 1988 interview with Soviet Radio, about the Marian and ecumenical [Judeo-Christian] aspects of his Symphony #4 [1984]. See:

In a nutshell, besides evoking the five Catholic ‘fortunate, tragic, and miraculous’ episodes in the life of Mary; Schnittke employed tones (4) from a Major Tetrachord to evoke Catholic christianity; tones (4) from a Minor Tetrachord to evoke Orthodox christianity; tones (6) from two Trichords in evoke Lutheran christianity; and two (2) pairs of Minor Seconds linked by a whole step to evoke ‘uralten Synagogengesang’ (the Judaic cantoral tradition).
Together, these superimposed sets of tones evoke a fully pan-chromatic sound world — referred to by Schnittke as a primal, musical ‘infinite clay’.