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Galina Ustvolskaya—Hidden Genius: Continuum, Merkin Concert Hall, New York, 16.2.2008 (BH)

Symphony No. 4 "Prayer" (1987)
Composition No. 2 "dies irae" (1973)
Sonata for Violin and Piano (1952)
Piano Sonata No. 6 (1988)
Symphony No. 5 "Amen" (1990)

Cheryl Seltzer, director and piano
Joel Sachs, director, piano and conductor
Alison Tupay, mezzo-soprano
Philip Booth, speaker
Renée Jolles, violin
Marsha Heller, oboe
Louis Hanzlik, trumpet
Marcus Rojas, tuba
Jared Soldiviero, percussion
Victor Kioulaphides, double bass, principal
Tomoya Aomori, double bass
Richard Fredrickson, double bass
David Kahn, double bass
Justin Kujawski, double bass
Paul Nemeth, double bass
Michah Schub, double bass
Mark Wallace, double bass


"It is not you who are influenced by me: rather it is I who am influenced by you."

(Dmitri Shostakovich, writing about Galina Ustvolskaya)

Every now and then one encounters a voice so unusual that it compels you to take notice, even if ultimately the music is so extreme that it can't be heard that often.  In a stunningly austere evening, Continuum presented five works by Galina Ustvolskaya, whose esthetic gives "stripped down" new meaning.  Take a moment to ponder the connotations of the word "symphony," and then consider Galina Ustvolskaya's Fourth, scarcely eight minutes long, for alto, piano, trumpet and tam-tam.  Its obsessive structure consists primarily of a single phrase—three ascending notes capped with a gong crash—repeated over and over with slight variations, a "prayer" that sounds offered more out of desperation than of hope.  Mezzo-soprano Alison Tupay's rich voice was in acute contrast to Louis Hanzlik's muted trumpet, Joel Sachs's piano clusters and the deathly gong of Jared Soldiviero.

The next work, Composition No. 2, was equally raw, and how could I have imagined, a year ago, that in the next twelve months I would hear it not once, but twice?  But Continuum's superb performance was indeed the second, following an excellent reading—albeit heavily amplified—at last June's Bang on a Can marathon by the Hartt Brass Band, at 2:05 in the morning.  The orchestration is again, startling: eight double basses, piano, and wooden block.  Again, a repetitive figure of stabbing bow strokes begins in the double basses, with the piano and wood block in stark contrast.  The block is struck with a hard mallet, creating a sharp timbre not unlike that heard on a construction site, with slightly different tones if the side of the box is struck.  The net result is a work of harsh beauty, unflinching in its unadorned phrases.

From 1952, the Sonata for Violin and Piano was the earliest, and also the most conservative: much of its length, the two instruments are in almost constant synchronization, in squarely regular phrases.  Somehow I thought of Hindemith, but with the edges sanded off, creating a very gray palette.  Violinist Renée Jolles and Mr. Sachs on the piano made the best possible case for this early glimpse into the composer's fierce sound world.

Although all these pieces are hard to forget, the Piano Sonata No. 6 might be the most memorable, as well as the most fearsome, built almost entirely of tone clusters banged out at a volume level of ffff to fffff.  There is an oasis near the end of four or five measures of quiet, but then the pianist returns to finish with a hammering conclusion.  Cheryl Seltzer's heroic reading, from memory, was one of the high points of the evening, and from the audience response, perhaps the sleeper hit.

The wood box returned for the final work, the Symphony No. 5, subtitled "Amen," for six players.  Like Webern or Morton Feldman, the spare texture means that each instrument's sound is crucial.  Marsha Heller's sweet oboe was about the only balm in a bleak mix of violin, trumpet and tuba (Marcus Rojas), with Philip Booth solemnly speaking the words of The Lord's Prayer ("Our father, who art in heaven…").  It is unlike any symphony I have ever heard, or probably will.

Bruce Hodges

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