When Sofia Gubaidulina was a student at Moscow Conservatory, the administration would sometimes raid the student dormitories in search of forbidden music by such composers as Stravinsky, Ives, and Cage. “Almost all Western music of the 20th century was prohibited,” the composer said in a 1995 interview. “Of course, we found ways . . . pulling it, so to say, ‘through the back door.’ ” Western music wasn’t the only facet of her life of which the authorities disapproved. Since her childhood, she had been deeply religious, and her convictions frequently manifest in her music to this day.
Preparing for her final examinations, she met with Russia’s most prominent composer of the time, Dmitri Shostakovich. “Don’t be afraid to be yourself,” he encouraged her. “My wish for you is that you should continue on your own incorrect path.” Like Shostakovich, she wrote film scores to pay the bills and continued following more personal musical interests on the side. Also like Shostakovich, she was blacklisted and denounced for composing music not in line with the Soviet spirit, and nevertheless, she persisted in following her own road.
Under the baton of Andris Nelsons on Thursday night, the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed the world premiere of Gubaidulina’s latest landmark on her “incorrect path,” the Triple Concerto for violin, cello, and bayan, which is a Russian chromatic button accordion. Enamored with the accordion’s ability to “breathe,” and dedicating the score to bayan soloist Elsbeth Moser, Gubaidulina here imbued the element of breath into every instrument. The sound of the bayan appeared with a dark major seventh dyad, and low swells of sound rolled from the basses and tuba, introducing ascending intervals in the solo cello and violin and subtle dynamic arcs in the strings. Baiba Skride drew whistling harmonics out of her violin, and in dialogue with it, Harriet Krijgh’s cello line fluttered upward. It seemed a new universe was being born onstage, a cosmic egg crisscrossed with intervallic paths. Set against passages of chromatic haze, consonances and triads resounded with extra luminosity.
I momentarily looked around for what I thought was a collective sigh from the crowd only to find that the cellos had slid downward en masse, and later I mistook a trombone’s high keen for a yawn or a cry. The music created the illusion of human voices, the purest representation of breath, and time seemed to expand and contract with the spectrum of sounds. Near the end, the music seemed to wind back toward the muted primordial frequencies from which it came, but it was not to be. The full force of the orchestra rushed in with a blazing ascent to the heavens, Jacob’s ladder in terrifying brightness.
The performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, “Leningrad,” stood as a powerful musical monument to resilience in the face of totalitarian violence. Dedicated to the city itself, its first 1942 performance in the city was by an ensemble of malnourished musicians, some of whom could barely produce sound from their instruments after a year of starvation-level rations under siege. The “invasion theme” of the first movement was both seductively catchy and jaw-droppingly sinister as it accreted power and volume to the beat of a snare drum. Through the first variations, Nelsons stood still with only his baton twitching, like the metronome that broadcast over Leningrad’s radio stations to assure the residents that the Nazis had not seized the city.
As the volume of instruments and sound increased, Nelsons became more forceful. The happy tune was laced with fury and razor-edged accents, and the strings and brass shrieked like raid sirens. (For the first time at a symphony concert, I wished I’d brought earplugs.) The simple ditty had become all-encompassing, flooding the consciousness until naught else could be sensed. After the turmoil died down, Richard Svoboda contributed a forlorn bassoon solo, evoking a lone soul wandering the streets after the all-clear siren.
It was hard to relax into the sweeter second movement after such a heart-pounding ride, even with a sweet oboe solo to buoy it along. The music remained on edge, anticipating the dark burlesque waltz that interjects into the second movement and the minor-key agitation that interrupted the contemplative Adagio. The symphony is about 75 minutes long, and around the border of the third and fourth movements, energy flagged, but as the finale approached, the ensemble found more fuel. The final march to resolution was weary but resolute, with a survivor’s righteous triumph.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Feb. 23 (repeats Feb. 25). www.bso.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.