Fear No Music gave a thought-provoking and energetic concert at The Old Church (November 13) of music written by four composers (all women) who grew up in the Soviet Union. One has to keep in mind that all art created in the Soviet Union (1922-1991) had to follow prescribed rules determined by the Communist Party as correct and good for the public. To maintain some kind of artistic independence was extremely difficult, but in the world of music there were composers who defied the authorities. We all know about Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Schnittke, but most of us are not familiar with the music of Galina Grigorjeva, Sofia Gubaidulina, Galina Ustvolskaya, and Franghiz Ali-Zadeh. As proven in the FNM concert, their music is outstanding and deserves to be heard more often.
For those like me who do not know much about Grigorjeva, Gubaidulina, Ustvolskaya, and Ali Zadeh–and can barely pronounce their names–here’s a bit of background information. Grigorjeva was born in Ukraine in 1962, studied music at conservatories in Odessa and St. Petersburg, and moved to Estonia in 1990 where she still lives today. Gubaidulina (b. 1931) was raised in the Tatar area of the USSR and went to conservatories in Kazan and Moscow. In 1992, she moved to Germany and lives in the small town of Appen, which is near Hamburg. Ustvolskaya (1919-2006) grew up in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) where she studied music at the conservatory. Ali-Zadeh (b. 1947) hails from Baku, Azerbaijan, and attended the Azerbaijan State Conservatory. She splits her time between Berlin and Baku. Of note also is that Shostakovich crossed paths with both Gubaidulina and Ustvolskaya.
All four composers have sought to express their ideas and feelings about religion and spirituality through their music. Such expressions were forbidden in the USSR, which maintained a strict atheistic state. Gubaidulina was actually blacklisted and, according to an NPR report, was almost strangled to death because of her stance.
Grigorjeva’s Molitva (The Prayer), originally written in 2005 for alto saxophone and organ, has been arranged by the composer for various instrumental combinations (including one for theremin and strings). Fear No Music featured cellist Nancy Ives, FNM artistic director and violist Kenji Bunch, violinist and Metropolitan Youth Symphony music director Raúl Gómez-Rojas, and members of the MYSfits string ensemble (directed by Bunch) in this meditative piece. Ives evoked plaintive passages, and her singular tone was surrounded by a soft halo from the string ensemble. At one point the accompanying voices became more prominent, but they gently subsided, and Ives settled the scene with an intimate statement but in a lower range. The piece ended tenderly and earnestly, like a prayer.
Gubaidulina’s String Quartet No. 4 (written in 1993) used lighting, pre-recorded segments, and periodically superball mallets instead of bows. Performed by violinists Inés Voglar Belgique and Keiko Araki, violist Amanda Grimm, and cellist Ives, Gubaidulina’s piece featured intriguing interplay between ricocheting sounds, caused by tapping the strings of the instruments with superball mallets. That elicited a skittering, skeletal sound. Pizzicato-ing passages, phrases with high glissandi, and seemingly disjointed sections that bordered on cacophony, provided lots of arresting moments. The unusual collage of sounds was not always easy to grasp, and like the other works on this program, deserves to be heard again
Having heard a recording of Ustvolskaya’s Piano Sonata No. 5 with its stream of knuckle-crunching, brutal sounds, I braced myself to hate it in a live concert, but about a minute into hearing Jeff Payne play it, I actually found that I enjoyed it. Payne wielded his fist, wrist, and knuckles mercilessly on the keyboard, exploring at times the extreme ends of treble and bass notes. Although he pounded on keys most of the time, there were quiet sections, and that created some terrific dynamic contrasts. But the thing about the piece was an insistent, singular D flat. Was that the voice of someone alone in the wilderness railing against a culture of brutality? Or the voice of God from a burning bush? Ustvolskaya gave very few interviews and didn’t like to talk about her work. She wrote the Piano Sonata No. 5 in 1986 and stopped writing music after 1991, living the last 15 years of her life as a recluse. Based on what I experienced, a live performance is best. Maybe FNM can entice Payne to play it again someday.
Araki, Voglar Belgique, Grimm, and Ives closed the concert with Franghiz Ali Zadeh’s Mugam Sayagi for String Quartet (1993). Ives began the piece, playing alone on stage. One at a time, the others created sounds from a side room and gradually came in to join her. Repeating a line that had sliding, Middle-Eastern tones, Ives intoned – according to the composer’s program notes – a call to prayer. Strongly accented lines from the cello were followed by plucking sounds from her colleagues. Several sforzando eruptions set off a sequence of rhythmic, playful responses and later a folk-dance-like section. Araki fashioned some delightful, very high bird-like calls, and a call and response episode was very appealing. The piece also called for Voglar Belgique playing the triangle and a drum, and Grimm hitting a gong.
Overall, the concert was one of the best that I have heard from FNM. It showed how music can address or express serious ideas in a deep way. I hope that there will be more opportunities for FNM to bring music from these composers to our ears in the near future.