Sunday, February 22, 2009

Influence (or not) Without (or with) Anxiety

If I was at a disadvantage for hearing Sofia Gubaidulina's "The Light of the End" only once (that one time being last night at Davies Symphony Hall), that disadvantage was somewhat compensated by my hearing her "Repentance" as the first work on the program of this afternoon's Chamber Music Series concert at Davies. This work was first performed in 2007 and is very much a continuation of what I called her "exploration of the dialectic between the traditional sonorities of equal-tempered tuning and those of musical instruments' natural harmonics." In this case, however, rather than working with the rich palette of a large orchestra, she focused on a much smaller ensemble, which still had rich timbrous possibilities. The work was originally scored for a solo cello (dedicated to the cellist Ivan Monighetti) accompanied by a guitar quartet. The program notes quoted Gubaidulina's description of the work in her own words as:

… a constant striving to perceive the mystery of consonant sounds in the chords of harmonics played by the guitars [which] turns out, each time [through a series of variations], to be unattainable. And we return, against and again, to dark coloration. Only at the end—in the fifth variation, that is—the confessional expression of the cello's cantilena results in the genuinely radiant sound of harmonics in the soprano guitar. It is as if the force of this expression had rescued a spirit striving for the light from the dark of Plato's cave.

For this performance Gubaidulina rescored the work so that the cello was accompanied by three guitars and a double bass. It is hard to speculate how these sounds would have compared with those of the original scoring; but, from the way in which she received the performers at the conclusion of the work, it seemed apparent that she was more than satisfied with the sound. (Indeed, she seemed more interested in letting the performers know about her satisfaction than in turning around to acknowledge the enthusiastic audience response.)

In many ways the tension of that underlying dialectical opposition is more evident in the more transparent texture of this chamber setting than it was in the rich orchestral textures of "The Light of the End." Also, chamber music tends to give off an air of more personal commitment, since every individual voice is far more exposed; and with that commitment came an abundance of one-to-one and one-to-many communicative actions. This was particularly apparent in the relationship between lead guitarist David Tanenbaum and the other two guitars (Thomas Viloteau and Elliot Simpson) and the bass (Scott Pingel). They were all there to engage both with and against cellist Peter Wyrick's solo lines; and the resulting web of communication was one of the most fascinating I have experienced in any chamber music performance.

The score itself also inspired a rich repertoire of memories on my part, leading me to wonder which, if any, of them may have been part of Gubaidulina's own influences. Most interesting was the extent to which those chord progressions played by the guitars constituted a reflection (somewhere along the spectrum between solemn and playful) on the chorales of the "Fratres" compositions by Arvo Pärt. The writing for bass, on the other hand, led me to wonder whether or not, during her years of music education in Russia, Gubaidulina might have secreted away a stash of Charles Mingus recordings. More unlikely, but still worth speculating, is that the ensemble guitar work at its wildest displayed the same sort of abandon that I have heard only in the rhythmic energies of Harry Partch (and, as was the case with Partch's music, seeing the guitars negotiate those passages was just as satisfying as listening to them). Thus, I now seem to be creating a place for Gubaidulina in my own "memory palace" of personal listening experiences; and I hope that it will not be long before I return to that chamber of the palace.

If Gubaidulina saw pain in that dialectical opposition behind her current compositional efforts, there was another kind of pain in Bedřich Smetana's first string quartet in E minor, composed in 1876 with the descriptive title "Z mého života" (From My Life). Smetana had gone deaf in 1874; and this quartet is very much a document of both the folk music that influenced him and his own characteristic interpretations of those influences, which, in the final movement, is abruptly interrupted by a high E in the first violin. According to Smetana, that was the precise frequency of the tinnitus that preceded the onset of his deafness. When one hears this work for the first time, as I did last May at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, even if one has read a description of this work's "program," one does not know what to expect. Once one has heard it, however, the anticipation of that E haunts all the wistful nostalgia of the first three movements like a ghost. When it comes, it attacks the spirit of the listener in a manner that I, for one, find far more devastating than, for example, the hammer blows of Gustav Mahler's sixth symphony that symbolize his own personal catastrophes. There is thus a need to pace the performance of the tragic blow that will fall in the final movement; and this particular quartet of San Francisco Symphony members (violins Sarn Oliver and Mariko Smiley, viola Yun Jie Liu, and cello Margaret Tait) knew exactly what that pace should be.

After the intermission another quartet (violins Nadya Tichman and Suzanne Leon, viola Adam Smyla, and cello Michael Grebanier) performed the sixth of Ludwig van Beethoven's Opus 18 string quartets (in B-flat major). This work also has a title, "La Malinconia" (Melancholy), which refers to the Adagio that begins the final movement at later interrupts the Allegretto quasi allegro section. Thayer offers no clues as to whether or not this melancholy was grounded in a personal experience, but the spirit of this work provided an excellent complement to Gubaidulina's sense of pain in the dialectic she chose to explore and Smetana's decision to document the pain of his own personal tragedy. I should also point out that the rendering of this particular melancholy by this particular quartet was quite effective, especially coming right on the heels of the slightly off-kilter rhythms of the third Scherzo movement, which almost serves as an omen that the affability of the first two movements is about to be dispersed. Yet, if each work on the program was under the same sort of dark clouds that have been bringing rain to San Francisco for all of this day, the performances of all three of the works provided the brilliance of the sun we were not able to see. Once again, this has proved to be an exciting city for the chamber music it offers.

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