Even at the age of 81, composer Sofia Gubaidulina remains one of the most captivating and enigmatic figures in today’s musical landscape, having been sequestered by the iron curtain of the Soviet Union until her move to Hamburg in the mid-eighties. Since then, the half-Russian, half-Tatar composer has gained critical acclaim, with works championed by the likes of violinists Gidon Kremer and Ann-Sophie Mutter, Sir Simon Rattle, and the symphonies of Berlin, Chicago, and New York.
It's very rare, however, to encounter a program devoted solely to Gubaidulina’s works; hers is an uncompromising voice that (having continuously eschewed the standards enforced by the USSR government) mixes simplicity with the avant-garde, microtonality with Orthodox chant.
Columbia University’s Miller Theatre rose to the occasion Saturday night, importing the International Contemporary Ensemble and conductor Christian Knapp to lead a program comprising two Soviet-era works, as well as later chamber pieces that integrated the artistic sense of freedom developed during her later period.
Although representative of Bach’s time, Gubaidulina’s use of the harpsichord was by no means traditional. Acting as an expert conjurer awakening the string voices, Jacob Greenberg convincingly paced the work throughout, aggressively articulating the tonal framework while the quartet reveled in all kinds of hyperkinetic motion. Eventually the keyboard succumbs to the frenetic activity—closing the work with a series of devilish trills and discordant harmonies that made for an incredibly elusive and suspenseful finish.
The highlight of the evening was the rarely heard Concerto for Bassoon and Low Strings. Composed in 1975, the work hardly complies with standard concerto form—pitting the minute chamber ensemble of four cellos and three double basses against the soloist, who doesn’t always win the many battles conducted throughout the five movements.
Bassoonist and ICE member Rebekah Heller’s musical personality made for an engaging account of the piece, traversing both the grumbly lower register and the nose-bleed altissimo within the same breaths. Alternating between her role as the principal voice and the subservient slave to the string septet, Heller keenly positioned herself as dynamic soloist and egalitarian collaborator.
Utilizing many extended techniques, including a set of multiphonics in the second movement, Heller kept complete control over her instrument—bringing to mind Jimi Hendrix’s stage presence and conviction while delivering the final movement’s fiendishly difficult, primal scream-esque final cadenza.
Rounding out the program was a lengthy Trio for violin, viola, and cello, as well as 1971’s Concordanza for 10 soloists. Despite the 18 years between compositions, both were acute vehicles for Gubaidulina’s alternations between feverish string writing and both euphonious and dissonant chants.
Collectively, the program’s four works showed Gubaidulina’s central voice: one that can either be criticized for minimally evolving throughout her career, or praised for a commanding confidence developed in youth and well maintained for decades to come.