Visionary composer Sofia Gubaidulina visits San Francisco

by Philip Campbell

Bay Area Reporter

Monday March 9, 2009

Strange and wonderful music has filled Davies Symphony Hall for the past two weeks. The first Phyllis C. Wattis Composer Residency of Sofia Gubaidulina has supplied it. Actually, Gubaidulina's presence in San Francisco is more as a guest than a resident. The two weeks of subscription concerts, featuring major recent works, presented San Francisco with local, not world premieres. A specially commissioned piece is promised for another season. Whatever the circumstances, the visionary (often deemed mystical) composer's visit is a coup for the San Francisco Symphony, and an important introduction for local listeners to a unique contemporary voice.

Regardless of the complexity of her scores, Gubaidulina is a real communicator. Even with her difficult (at least upon first hearing) experiments with non-traditional tuning and dense though often ravishing orchestrations, she invites listeners into a partnership on a journey of spiritual discovery. This was immediately apparent with the recent SFS premiere of The Light of the End (2003). Visiting maestro Kurt Masur has previously conducted the work in Boston, and his experience with it brought a clear understanding and control to bear on what could have been a confusing introduction. The results were appealing, mysterious, and, ultimately, meaningful.

There is a lot of New Age hyperbole attached to Gubaidulina's intentions, but from what I can gather, her "spirituality" is radical mainly due to her roots in the Russian Orthodoxy. That has been no easy philosophy for a former Soviet citizen, and Gubaidulina, at 77, has also defiantly proclaimed her indifference to modernity.

Dmitri Shostakovich himself told her once to remain true to her own voice, and that she has done, enjoying a long and prolific career that finally seems to have captured the imagination of listeners throughout the rest of the West. Her affinity with Bach and focus on "vertical" and "horizontal" thought informs most of her work, even if the consonance of Bach's writing is only audible in her organization of sounds.

The Light of the End is full of episodic cries and whispers, but there is also an underlying lyricism that helps the traveler through a dark and moody landscape. The SFS musicians took to the piece as though it had been in their repertoire for years. Masur could be given much of the credit for keeping things in place without denying a certain feeling of spontaneity.

Glorious Mutter

Last week, superstar violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter came to town to give the local debut of Gubaidulina's glorious "concerto" In tempus praesens (In present time), which was written especially for her. This was some major music-making at Davies, with Michael Tilson Thomas on the podium and the fabulously gifted and glamorous Mutter showcasing a truly important work. Scheduling by the SFS did not include the Gubaidulina concerto on all subscription series, however, substituting the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. Scheduling difficulties regrettably precluded my attendance for In tempus praesens, though I am an admirer of the score from Mutter's excellent recording (coupled with two fine performances of Bach concertos).

I did get to hear and see the divine Miss M in a breathtaking performance of the beloved Mendelssohn, and let me tell you, there is no greater thrill than a star at the peak of her powers in a star turn. All one had to do was look at the genuine warmth and admiration in MTT's eyes to appreciate what a force Anne-Sophie Mutter is to the world of music and musicians. Her championing of modern works and living composers is tremendously important.

So, too, we can appreciate the Phyllis C. Wattis Composer Residency program. We will be waiting with high expectations to see what Sofia Gubaidulina has in store exclusively for San Francisco.

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