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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

FOCUS! 2005 Breaking the Chains: the Soviet Avant-Garde, 1966-1991: Shostakovich: Symphony No. 15 (1971), Gubaidulina: Stimmen...verstummen (1986), Juilliard Symphony, Reinbert de Leeuw, Conductor, Juilliard Theater, New York City, January 28, 2005 (BH)


Take a moment to imagine the very first time you encountered a work that you consider a masterpiece – perhaps Beethoven’s Eroica, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, or Stravinsky’s Petrouchka – and how the rest of your day went after you heard it. My reaction is usually a surfeit of energy – so much so that after an evening concert I find it difficult to get to sleep. This is exactly what happened last Friday night after Reinbert de Leeuw and the Juilliard Symphony closed down the Focus! Festival with Sofia Gubaidulina’s magnificent Stimmen…verstummen (Voices…silenced). Without hesitation, I’d nominate this for the pantheon of the great works of the 1980s.


The concert began with Shostakovich’s late masterpiece, the Fifteenth Symphony, and of all of the composer’s musings on death, this one has the most vivid “dancing skeleton” feel, its somber tone alternating with what sounds like sickly humor, delivered with a weak smile, facing what is surely the end of the road. It uses an enormous ensemble including ten double- basses, and I counted seven percussion players. The first movement is famous for its enigmatic quote from Rossini’s William Tell Overture, and was insouciantly done by the Juilliard brass section. The middle movements had some lyrically delivered solos by the principal violin and cello, as well as some gorgeously solemn brass. The final movement eventually climaxes with the last few bars, in which a long, powerfully sustained high chord is softly intoned by the strings, lasting a good two or three minutes, while the percussion section delicately knocks out tiny sounds on blocks, bells and gongs, all floating above. It is a magical ending, and Mr. de Leeuw and the players were tremendous, in keen rapport with each other.


The orchestra played with great style and spirit, and no, this is not a euphemism for “committed but sloppy.” The Juilliard Symphony is the school’s orchestra for first-, second-, and third-year undergraduates and incoming graduate students (the Juilliard Orchestra is for fourth-year undergraduates) and at least on this night with Mr. de Leeuw, their cohesiveness would shame many professionals. In defense of those pros, it must be said that this concert may have been the beneficiary of many more rehearsal hours than are usually allotted these days. Whatever the reason, the group sounded splendid. These young players must be completely delighted to play such sophisticated scores, and did so with a passion that reminds you of why you go to hear live music in the first place.


So then came the Gubaidulina, written fifteen years later. Stimmung…verstummen is related to an earlier work, Perception, for orchestra and chorus, and is in twelve parts played without interruption. The gimmick is that each of the odd-numbered sections is in D major, whilst the even-numbered parts are filled with more free-floating material. This structure allows the composer considerable opportunity to explore a vast range of timbres available to a large orchestra, and this one is very large, including not one, but three percussion groups – right, left and center – and augmented with additional strings, in two groups on either side. In a marked change from the usual layout, the double-basses are right up front near the edge of the stage, with the cellos and violas next, and the violins grouped back by the woodwinds, emphasizing Gubaidulina’s continuing fascination with extremely low timbres. (As an aside, it was intriguing during intermission to watch the staff – presumably students – diligently decipher what was no doubt an extremely complicated stage plot, as the Juilliard Theatre stage was filled to bursting.)


The opening D major chord is arresting, radiant and luminous, with the strings creating a mesmerizing “chattering” effect with dozens of bows bouncing lightly. But this soon segues to the second section, with long droning notes on the organ, as well as indescribable timbres in the rest of the orchestra, before the third section returns to a now-altered version of that D major anchor. In many parts of the piece, I was gazing down at the ensemble working feverishly, and I could not reconcile the sounds I was hearing with their methods of production. Over and over again, an unusual sound would emerge, and for the life of me, I couldn’t quite figure out how it was being evoked. I could see the musicians playing, and could hear the result, but there was a continuing gap between feeling and knowing – plus, things were just happening too fast to absorb all the techniques being used. Gubaidulina has a great talent for extracting a vast range of timbres from a large orchestra. She mixes wildly contrasting colors, such as pizzicati (sometimes soft, sometimes furious), dense brass chords, and extreme registers, all swirled with many imaginatively conceived percussion effects. As with many of her works, Stimmen is filled with poignant sequences for double-basses, bassoons, contrabassoon and other instruments asked to groan in their lowest ranges. Ultimately the best strategy was just to sit back and soak in the amazing array of sounds.

 

One striking moment deserves particular mention. Following the eighth section, the entire orchestra falls silent, as the conductor continues on, using hand movements carefully indicated in the score. At the climax, the conductor’s hands are outstretched parallel to the floor, palms facing outward and evoking the Crucifixion, held for a few seconds, then followed by an eerie, high-pitched organ note that (again, probably not coincidentally) made me think of bleeding. Given the composer’s well-documented spirituality, I doubt that any of this was accidental, although no programmatic connotation is needed. (However, for your further consideration, 1986 was also the year of two notably sad disasters: the Challenger space shuttle explosion, and the Chernobyl nuclear accident.) In any case, the entire sequence is stunning, and again is best experienced live, rather than on a recording (and although I haven’t yet heard it, there is one, by Gennady Rozhdestvensky and the Stockholm Philharmonic on Chandos). The work closes with an offstage string trio, delivering feather-light pitches that eventually dissolve into silence.


When Ms. Gubaidulina found out that this was to be the grand finale of this year’s Focus! Festival, she was seriously considering flying over, which would have been very moving indeed, especially since I gather that now her visits to the U.S. are rare. Ultimately she could not attend – a real shame, since it would have been a great pleasure to see her reaction to the whooping audience as de Leeuw lowered his hands and the piece came to rest.


Now, if you’ll excuse me, my adrenalin level has dropped back to its normal state, and I have to get some sleep.


Bruce Hodges




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)