At 90, a composer is still sending out blasts

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At 90, a composer is still sending out blasts
Gewandhaus zu Leipzig © Jens Gerber, 2015.

by J.S. Marcus

APPEN.- Composer Sofia Gubaidulina, who turns 90 on Sunday, lives in a humble brick bungalow in this small town outside Hamburg. She receives guests in the dining room; to get there, they are led through the kitchen to a small round table decked out with a spread of strong tea, something sweet and the Russian Orthodox icon known as Our Lady of Kazan.

It’s all modest and unassuming. But there are clues everywhere of an eminent career in music. A Steinway grand piano, a gift from Rostropovich, has pride of place in the living room. On a bookshelf is a recent CD of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, conducted by Andris Nelsons, who will lead Gubaidulina’s 2003 work “The Light of the End” with the Boston Symphony Orchestra this week. A gong hangs on a wall and a set of bamboo wind chimes hovers near a sliding-glass door — reminders of the kind of instruments that mark her richly colored, rhythmically adventurous compositions.

Gubaidulina’s bright eyes are undiminished by age. A neighbor usually helps her prepare for guests, but couldn’t come on a recent afternoon. “Is the tea all right?” Gubaidulina asked. Then the conversation turned toward faith, which stands at the center of her work.

“I am convinced that religion is the kernel of all art,” she said, a hint of generous fervor in her voice.

Her birthday is being celebrated with a sustained burst of high-profile events. On Friday, Nelsons and Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, Germany, will release a Deutsche Grammophon recording of “The Light of the End” and two more recent pieces: her third violin concerto, the angst-filled “Dialogue: I and You,” which suggests a fracture between soloist Vadim Repin and the orchestra, and “The Wrath of God,” which begins with a blast of Wagner tubas and, 17 minutes later, abruptly ends.

At the Gewandhaus, where Nelsons is the music director, she is the featured composer through next season. In the coming months, her music — already common on programs around the world — will be played in cities including Moscow, where she lived for decades; Munich; Berlin; Cleveland; Tallinn, Estonia; Katowice, Poland; and Utrecht, the Netherlands.

And in her native Tatar region of Russia, some 600 miles east of Moscow, where Russian and Central Asian influences overlap, a festival in Kazan celebrates her with a week of chamber and orchestral works starting Monday. There, she studied piano and composition before continuing her studies in Moscow, starting in her early 20s; her talent was recognized by Shostakovich, whose encouragement in the late 1950s was a key event in her life.

She found a home in Moscow’s musical scene but was kept perilously at the edges of the Soviet Union’s conservative musical establishment. She made a living writing film scores while experimenting with non-Western percussion instruments.

“I give a lot of importance to percussion instruments,” she said. “They contain the essence of existence.”

In 1970, she was baptized into the Russian Orthodox faith, but came to see her heritage as cosmopolitan, citing her Tatar father’s Muslim background (her grandfather was an imam), her Jewish music teachers and what she described in a 1990 BBC documentary as “the spiritual nourishment” from German cultural heroes like Bach and Beethoven.

In the early 1980s, she had a breakthrough in the West with “Offertorium,” a concerto written for violinist Gidon Kremer. Consisting of a Webern-like disintegration of a theme by Bach — which is later reconstituted, but in reverse — the moving piece established Gubaidulina’s international reputation as something of a spiritualist.

By that point, she had also developed an arcane compositional technique with her companion (and later third husband), music theoretician Pyotr Meshchaninov. Relying on numerical sequences to plot out structure and rhythm, Gubaidulina uses devices such as Fibonacci numbers to generate a series of cryptic sketches, which eventually result in a score. Though much of her home feels wide open, her composing studio, fashioned out of an attic space, is a “secret room,” said Hans-Ulrich Duffek, a director at Sikorski, her German publisher since the 1980s.

Initially grouped with her fellow late Soviet-era composers Alfred Schnittke and Edison Denisov, Gubaidulina never settled on a definitive or identifiable style. “She uses a great variety of musical styles,” Duffek said. “Tonality may be predominant, but you will find dodecaphony, atonality, pentatonic scales, quotations, aleatoric passages and tonality.”

“Sometimes,” he added, “side by side.”

What her longer, single-movement concertos tend to have in common is “an ongoing narrative,” said violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, for whom Gubaidulina wrote her second violin concerto, “In Tempus Praesens,” in 2007. Her pieces often seem to move from disorder or conflict to something akin to sanctification.

In “Glorious Percussion,” a 2008 concerto for orchestra and percussion ensemble, the five featured percussionists use a dizzying array of instruments — including marimbas, xylophones, sleigh bells, glass chimes, bamboo chimes and tuned gongs — to stage “a bit of a tussle,” said percussionist Colin Currie, who helped organize the British premiere in 2019.

“The ensemble try to build up enough of their own momentum to come out on top,” he said, adding: “The orchestra fights back with large forces, with crescendos going back and forth. My feeling is they’re all trying to work it out.” Then the climax is “a moment of reconciliation, consolidation and redemption.”

Gubaidulina and Meshchaninov made their way west in the early 1990s, in the wake of the chaos following the Soviet Union’s dissolution. Her only child, Nadia Gubaidulina, a biochemist from her first marriage, stayed in Russia.

The ’90s were for her a period of major commissions from leading soloists and ensembles, and an expanding use of unusual instrumentation and unconventional sounds. In her 1996 Viola Concerto, written for Yuri Bashmet and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, she introduced the rumbling power of Wagner tubas. The piece “develops the very high register for the viola,” said Antoine Tamestit, who has been playing it since 2006, “and then opposes it with the tubas.”

In 1997 she composed “The Canticle of the Sun” for Rostropovich; written for cello, a small choir and percussion, the piece calls for the soloist to retune a string between phrases, to use a stick instead of a bow, and to eventually replace the cello with a flexatone, which can sound like a musical saw. Based on a song by St. Francis of Assisi that thanks God for the splendors of creation, it has become one of her most performed works.

“Dialogue: I and You,” the violin concerto, concludes with the soloist’s long, slowly depleting, sky-high A, which Duffek said might suggest “the soul having risen to heaven after a long earthly fight.” Some Gubaidulina watchers sense a new darkness entering her recent work. Nelsons described “The Wrath of God” as “really scary.”

Speaking over tea, she used the word “tragic” to describe the effects of pieces of music or individual instruments, but it might also be applied to her own life. In 2004 her daughter died of cancer at 44, and Meshchaninov died in 2006 after suffering an aortic aneurysm.

“Sofia’s tragedy is that she wasn’t able to be at their bedsides when they died,” Duffek said, though he said he doesn’t believe she responded to the losses in her music. A photograph of her daughter sits across from Gubaidulina’s dining room table.

“My daughter is always with me,” she said, “always supporting me.”

Her birthday celebrations will culminate in a planned premiere next season of a new piece commissioned by the Gewandhaus and Boston Symphony. It will have the same instrumentation as “The Wrath of God.”

“I love the sound of Wagner tubas,” she said, smiling broadly.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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