In residence at Marlboro, Sofia Gubaidulina pursues music of the soul
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MARLBORO, Vt. — "A more mystical sound here please," the Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina says, leaning in toward a trio of musicians rehearsing at the Marlboro Music Festival on Monday afternoon.
She elaborates: "Here the viola has a mystical departure, a flight into the subconscious, while the bassoon keeps us in the everyday world." She adds, "I need to hear the balance."
The composer might have been describing her art as a whole. The players nod, and begin again.
At 84, Gubaidulina is a revered figure in the world of classical music, and one of the last major composers who came of age during the Soviet Union's darkest years under Stalin.
This was a rehearsal of "Quasi Hoquetus," a compact yet heavy-hitting work for viola, bassoon, and piano, that dates from 1984. At the piano on this occasion was Ignat Solzhenitsyn, a man not unfamiliar with the broader contexts of Gubaidulina's art, as his father was the writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.
On July 31, the trio, which includes violist Ayane Kozasa and bassoonist Brad Balliett, will perform the work at Marlboro, where Gubaidulina is this summer's composer-in-residence.
As the group rehearsed, the music seemed to speak with a rare, almost wild intensity, as if its expressive reach were stretching the limits of the modestly sized room. There were austere, tolling chords on the piano, fiercely angular rhythmic exchanges between bassoon and viola, and strangely beautiful passages of a more timeless enchantment.
Boston Symphony Orchestra audiences had a chance to experience Gubaidulina's otherworldly music in 2014, when Andris Nelsons led her "Offertorium," a violin concerto, with the Latvian soloist Baiba Skride. Presently, the composer is renewing her connection with the orchestra as she creates a new BSO co-commissioned Triple Concerto — for violin, cello, and bayan (a type of accordion) — which the ensemble will premiere in this country next February.
Taking a few minutes before the rehearsal, Gubaidulina sat for an interview with translation by her longtime associate, Laurel Fay, a leading scholar of Russian music.
Half-Russian and half-Tatar, Gubaidulina has a round face with deeply set eyes and a warm yet penetrating gaze. She grew up in the city of Kazan during years of brutal Stalinist repression. It was a time, she has described elsewhere, when everyone around her lived in dread of the knock on the door. She craved something beyond fear. "A human being," she has said, "even under the most difficult conditions, even in a murderous atmosphere, must have something to hold sacred."
Her parents bought a piano when she was 5. Speaking on Monday, she recalled its strange allure, like an exotic beast that had entered her small home. She and her sister began playing not only on its keys but also on its strings. Soon she was studying music more formally. "It was a path," she said, "an opening to a larger, more religious dimension."
The expansion only continued. "Shostakovich and Prokofiev had an enormous influence on my entire generation," she explained. "I can vividly remember being 13 or 14, playing chamber music — Shostakovich's Quintet, and the Trios — it was another opening into a different dimension. It was real music."
In 1959, while studying at the Moscow Conservatory, Gubaidulina had the chance to play her music for Shostakovich himself. He approved of her work, but it was his final words — spoken as a fellow artist who knew the weight of party censure — that seem to have stuck with her: "My wish for you is that you should continue on your own 'incorrect' path," he told her.
"Sometimes," Gubaidulina said, "just one word from somebody can be incredibly important for your whole life. For me, Shostakovich gave me that kind of confidence. In essence what I understood is that he encouraged me to be myself."
She went on to become a leading figure in Russian music, sharing an orbit with the most prominent post-Shostakovich composers, including Edison Denisov and Alfred Schnittke. Being a woman, she says, in this case raised no special hurdles. "In the Soviet Union, there was great oppression for ideological reasons," she says, "but never for gender."
Gubaidulina's mature music is an island all its own, an utterly individual art that blends avant-garde complexity with the cadences of the eternal. Webern and Bach are key points on her artistic compass. Yet her music, she says without hesitation, is composed first and foremost for God.
She could not put it in such overtly religious terms while living in the Soviet Union. But as she made her way through those years, the radical inwardness and piercing honesty of her music — during decades when the arts were so often coopted to serve the needs of the State — earned her immense respect among her peers. Schnittke, for instance, hailed "the remarkable integrity of her creative personality" and her "indomitable artistic will."
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Gubaidulina moved to a small village about an hour's drive from Hamburg, Germany. "My daily circumstances of course changed," she says, "but that's just daily life. I have not experienced any great break in my artistic situation. Because in my case, my attempts have always been to listen to myself, to listen to the sounds of the world. And doing that does not depend on daily events around me."
True to those words, while she has lived in Germany now for over a quarter-century, her music retains its older aura of spiritual authority. "She is one of the unique people in this world," pianist Mitsuko Uchida, artistic director of Marlboro, tells me. "There is just one other totally unique person I know — [composer] Gyorgy Kurtag. Mr. Kurtag and Sofia Gubaidulina — they write music from the bottom of their soul. And the soul is the point. Sofia's music is totally honest. This is such a rare quality. Don't ask me to name another living composer who writes like this."
The Czech dissident novelist Ivan Klima once remarked on the irony of the fact that his own writing, when it was officially banned and circulated in samizdat, carried much more import and urgency for his readers than when his work was published widely and easily available to all. Near the end of our interview, I asked Gubaidulina whether she had experienced anything similar with the fall of the Soviet Union and her own separation from her former cultural world.
At first it seemed as if she did not understand the question. But it quickly became clear instead that she simply rejected its central premise.
"I have different criteria," she eventually stated. "It's really not important whether the music is interesting or meaningful to someone else. What's important is whether it is truthful. And that truthfulness is a religious idea."
At Persons Auditorium, Marlboro College, Marlboro, Vt., July 31 at 2:30 p.m.