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A Composer of Contrasts

February 27, 2009

The San Francisco Symphony is at the end of a ten-day celebration of the music of the Tatar-Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina. Last night's concert, which featured the North American premiere of Gubaidulina's Violin Concerto No. 2 ("In Tempus Praesens"), a work dedicated to and performed by soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter, displayed the composer's skill at building tension through the manipulation of opposing forces in her work.

The extraordinary 33-minute piece is structured in a single movement. The composer pits Mutter's ethereal solo violin against the dramatic strength of a large, bottom-heavy orchestra which includes four-strong woodwind sections bolstered by bass clarinet and contrabassoon, extra brass (including three Wagner tubas and a bass tuba) and a battalion of percussion instruments such as chimes, whip and timpani. The score also includes two harps, a celesta, a piano and an amplified harpsichord. A massive string section adds to the basso profundo sound with its lack of violins.

The piece constantly contrasts light, wispy textures with heavy and dark timbres. Shimmering passages for piccolo, harps, celesta and glockenspiel offset bars of blaring brass and angry, booming timpani and swarming strings. Humorous little twittering outbursts of sound offset serious emotional melodic lines. Strictly metrical passages battle against arhythmic and sometimes exaggeratedly rubato sections.

Old and new musical traditions chafe fitfully against each other throughout the piece. Nuances of Beethoven, Bach and Berg all emerged from Gubaidulina's dense-delicate texture. The piece swerved between traditional major-minor tonality and spiraling over- and under-tones. All of these opposites, the soloist and orchestra under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas, pulled off with fitful aplomb.

"In Tempus Praesens" means "in the present time" and this work creates a collision between so many different opposing worlds that the experience of listening seems like it can only exist in a moment's breath. The concept of tension, so audibly at work in this violin concerto (the premiere of which Mutter performed at the Lucerne Festival in 2007) can also be heard in some of Gubaidulina's other works. I didn't hear her orchestral piece, The Light of the End conducted by Kurt Masur last week, but in his review entitled "Exciting Struggle in 'Light'", San Francisco Chronicle classical music critic, Joshua Kosman, seems to have felt similarly about that work. "The Light of the End, written in 2003, outlines a 20-minute struggle between two musical worlds: the acoustical world produced by the natural properties of sound, and the system of equal temperament that evolved during the Baroque era to tame and regularize those properties," Kosman writes. It's hard to imagine not being taken in by the sheer drama of this composer's music.


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