Bodil Maroni Jensen

New violin concerto by Sofia Gubaidulina

One of the leading composers of our time has given us yet another masterpiece; the violin concerto Dialog: Ich und Du, dedicated to violinist Vadim Repin and conductor Andres Mustonen.

Text and front page photo: Bodil Maroni Jensen.  Photo showing the violinist Vadim Repin

Tatar-Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina has written three violin concertos. The first and last of them create a frame for one of the most remarkable and significant international composer careers of our time.

Offertorium, the first violin concerto, is dedicated to Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer, who played the premiere performance in Vienna in 1981, without the composer being present. She was denied an exit permit by the Soviet government. This performance became her international breakthrough.

Before this, the name Sofia Gubaidulina was practically unknown in the West, and nor was she known by the general public of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Ministry of Culture labelled her work avant garde and experimental, and only a few of her works were approved for public performance.

In 1991, the year of Sofia Gubaidulina’s sixtieth birthday, friends helped her relocate to Germany. A considerable career then took shape, including commissions from orchestras and institutions in Europe, the US and Asia. When considering the works she has produced in recent years, we can recognize the importance of the position and work capacity of Sofia Gubaidulina.

The composer Sofia Gubaidulina. Photo taken in connection with the premiere of the oratorio Über Liebe und Hass, Tallinn, 2016. Photo: Bodil Maroni Jensen

Gubaidulina’s recent work

In 2016, on the occasion of the composer’s eighty-fifth birthday, the oratorio Über Liebe und Hass (nine movements, fifty minutes) was performed for the first time in Tallinn. In 2017 the Triple Concerto for violin, cello and bayan was premiered in Boston. 2018 saw the premiere performance of the violin concerto Dialog: Ich und Du in Novosibirsk, as well as the premiere performance of an extended version of Über Liebe und Hass (fifteen movements, seventy minutes) in Rotterdam.

Sofia Gubaidulina has said that she no longer wishes to accept commissions. She prefers to spend her remaining energy on works she herself wants to write, freely, on her own terms.

The second violin concerto, In Tempus Praesens, was written for Anne-Sophie Mutter in 2007. When revisiting the Deutsche Grammophon recording with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev today, the piece stands out as a strongly constructed, radiant revelation of beauty, that will remain as valuable as the first concert, though without the biographical and culture-historical significance of Offertorium.

Novosibirsk – Tallinn

– She works constantly. A composer’s creative force often subsides with age, but with Sofia it keeps increasing with every work. The music becomes more and more spiritual,” says Estonian conductor Andres Mustonen, one of Gubaidulina’s close musical associates. Both versions of the oratorio Über Liebe und Hass are dedicated to him. And now the third violin concerto as well; it is dedicated both to him and the soloist.

The premiere performance of Dialog: Ich und Du took place in Novosibirsk in Russia in April 2018, at soloist Vadim Repin’s Trans-Siberian Art Festival. The event was not given much attention further west, so when the concerto recently was performed in Tallinn, it provided a welcomed opportunity to hear the piece.

The violin concerto opened Andres Mustonen’s festival, MustonenFest, on February 1st this year. The concerto was performed by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra in the Estonia Concert Hall, in the distinguished concert and opera house that was inaugurated in 1913, a time when Estonia was fighting for sovereignty and liberation from the Russian Empire.

The theatre and concert building in Tallinn, housing the Estonian National Opera and The Estonian National Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Kaupo Kalda

Open dialogue

The hall, seating 990, is full, including a noticeable amount of younger audience members. Even children, probably siblings and friends of the children’s choir performing Carmina Burana by Carl Orff after the intermission. In my experience, concerts in Tallinn can be lengthy. Gubaidulina’s violin concerto lasting about twenty-five minutes and two virtuosic violin pieces by Ravel, make up the first part of the concert.

The orchestra is in place. Soloist and conductor take the stage greeted by enthusiastic ovations. They exhibit a remarkable calmness. The soloist and conductor seem to have an understanding between them; it is like they have already started the performance. Mustonen raises his arms with an inviting motion.

The sound starts in the deep abyss, mumbling, slowly rising, soon suggestive. Timpani disclose the presence of a dormant force. The violin takes over the hall alone, sincerely aspiring, rising one step at a time. Then the orchestra alone. The dialogue has commenced.

Sofia Gubaidulina in Semperoper, Dresden, 2017
Photo: Bodil Maroni Jensen

It soon becomes clear that Sofia Gubaidulina has a steady harmonic hand. The orchestra displays a rhetorical progress within which the composer gives a new announcement for every new chord. The soloist becomes more insisting, flinging out melodic phrases with large gestures.

I suddenly remember a rehearsal in Semperoper, Dresden, a couple of years ago: Sofia Gubaidulina demonstrates the expression in her music for Norwegian accordion player Geir Draugsvoll. Her direct and genuine movements showed me that her music emerges from an intense temperament and a will to communicate.

I observe the same here in the Estonian concert hall. The performance has a seriousness and necessity to it. Soloist and orchestra cross swords. They listen, pressure, ignore each other. There is struggle and strife. A timpani solo, perhaps at the point of the golden ratio, detains the participants, before they pounce on each other once again. Persistent, assertive, questioning, marvelling. Music theatre without words.

If graphic notation was enough, we would have seen rising and falling lines and fields. Sections of strings, brass, woodwinds and percussion would have their separate colours that mix when the masses of sound are shifted towards each other. Harps and celesta could have added a decorative surface. The sound density would be rendered in darker colours. When the masses of sound dissolve, the colours would be soft and translucent…

Closing on the end, the soloist’s melodic endeavours ascend to a long, sustained note, while the orchestra descends to the resonant foundation shaking of deep winds, tubas and trombones. Percussions boom. At this the sign of the cross is forged and sounded, with the emblem of Sofia Gubaidulina.

Sofia Gubaidulina and Geir Draugsvoll, rehearsal, Semperoper, Dresden, 2017. Photo: Bodil Maroni Jensen

Vadim Repin

During intermission, a long line forms backstage of people wishing to pay their congratulations. I only recognise one of them, a close friend of Sofia Gubaidulina, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. At eighty-four he is thin, a bit rounded in the shoulders, or perhaps only eagerly stooping, holding the hand of a young boy, perhaps his grandchild. For several years now, Pärt has been considered to be the world’s most performed living composer. He emigrated to Berlin in 1980, while Estonia was still occupied by the Soviet Union, and moved back to his home country in 2010.

Vadim Repin accepts his congratulations with a smile. One hour on the podium does not seem to have drained him of his energy. As the last person in line, I am invited in to the small artist’s dressing room. I am even permitted to rest my arm on his open violin case while I hold my sound recorder. In the case lies a Stradivarius from 1733, I have read on his web page. – Yes, yes, yes, it can take it,” says Repin. – I promise.

 «A violin concerto by Sofia Gubaidulina is a peaking point for me.»

Vadim Repin, soloist in the new violin concerto
by Sofia Gubaidulina. Tallinn 2019
Photo: Bodil Maroni Jensen

Vadim Repin was born in Novosibirsk in 1971. He won the Wieniawski Competition at the age of eleven and the Queen Elisabeth Competition at seventeen. He has been a sought after violinist ever since, in the major league of international music life.

In 2014 he founded the Trans-Siberian Art Festival in his birthplace. The festival carries prestige and has featured side trips to several Russian cities, like Moscow and Saint Petersburg, it has even arranged some concerts in The US, Europe and Japan.

New works are commissioned for every festival, he tells me, naming violin concertos by Benjamin Yusupov and Lera Auerbach, as well as a new violin concerto by Alexander Raskatov that he is looking forward to performing at this year’s festival.

Some years ago Sofia Gubaidulina was asked if she would write a piece for the festival.

– I wasn’t sure if she would do it. I hoped that a legendary composer like her would find time to write something for me and the festival, at some time. It was a great surprise when it came, and it is wonderful to be the first to perform it. A violin concerto by Sofia Gubaidulina is a peaking point for me. I am very glad that this concert has been born, and that I have the opportunity to perform it several places.

«Sofia Gubaidulina’s name is written in the history of music. I think she is extremely appreciated everywhere.»

Vadim Repin got to know Sofia Gubaidulina’s music about twenty years ago, when he first performed the violin concerto Offertorium in Amsterdam, with conductor Valery Gergiev. Since then, he has played the concerto hundreds of times, he says. He has also played the solo part of In Tempus Praesens a few times. But he finds it hard to compare the three concertos.

– What I am sure of, is that I instantly understand her language. The harmonics and structural language of her work. It is perfect. You recognise it instantly. It can only be her. This is where some of her genius lies.

What can you say about the title, Dialog: Ich und Du?

– The dialogue can be understood in many ways. It is a dialogue between the musicians on stage, and it is a prayer, a dialogue with God. It can also be a dialogue with our inner self. In my opinion, it is a rich presentation of thoughts and feelings.

The work is dedicated to you and conductor Andres Mustonen. What is your opinion on that?

– I am proud and happy, ecstatic, from someone like Sofia Gubaidulina! It gives me enormous pleasure to perform the music, like today. I was happy on stage, but also nervous. It is a demanding piece, because it is like… I am not the only one. I really have to be a part of the dialogue. I usually treat music like a dialogue, but in this concerto there is more, because I have to be a part of something larger than myself.

What made you most nervous?

– You only have one chance. That weighs heavy on me. You cannot do it twice. And for the orchestra it is a new piece. I wonder what the musicians will feel in the music. And I am nervous about if the concerto will succeed with the audience. If they will like it. So I am more than usually nervous before performing modern concertos and wish that everyone will appreciate the music.

A contemporary classic

Sofia Gubaidulina is regarded of many to be a classical composer, and her work is performed in concerts alongside a standard classical repertoire. In Vedim Repin’s experience, her music is accepted willingly by audiences.

– My experience is that the audience understands me and feels with me when I play her music. The music allows them to trust me. With both Offertorium and the new violin concerto, it is essential to forget reality for a moment and try to find peace within, and at the same time be open enough to follow along with the musical journey.

Vedim Repin has met Sofia Gubaidulina four or five times, he tells me. For instance when she attended the premiere performance in Novosibirsk. They worked through the score and she was very helpful.

–  There is an aura about her, that is also present around the music. She likes people very much, and she is open and loyal. It is like she embraces everyone in a sort of super-hug. But I do not claim to know her. She is not a complicated person, but she is talented in so many areas that it would take much longer to really get to know her. But as far as I can tell, her music is very connected to the way I see her as a person.

The next performance Vadim Repin will do of Dialog: Ich und Du is in Vienna in June, with the The ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. Once again, Andres Mustonen will conduct.

Andres Mustonen was conducting the premiere of Sofia Gubaidulina’s violin concerto Dialog: Ich und Du in Tallinn, 1 February 2019. Photo: Bodil Maroni Jensen

Andres Mustonen

The day after the Dialog: Ich und Du performance, I walk through Tallinn’s Old Town, to the Freedom Square. Towering over the square stands a monument remembering the fallen of the War of Independence against Russia in 1918 to 1920. Independence from Russia lasted only twenty years, until Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, by Germany in 1941, and by the Soviet Union again from 1944 to 1991. I am meeting Andres Mustonen at Café Wabadus. Vabadus in Estonian means freedom.

The conductor rushes towards me from St. John Church across the square, where he is leading rehearsals for his next festival concert. He does not take the time to order anything. He has already started talking.

– The last twenty-five years I have performed many works by Sofia Gubaidulina, sometimes owing to Estonia’s national orchestra. If new music is well played, then it is appreciated by the audience. However, new music is not always well played. It is often played out of duty, subsidised by governments, and so on, and in those cases the music does not have the nearness to people, even people that appreciate music. It is a question of proficiency, of the composer as well as the performance.

You are a close friend of Gubaidulina. Does that provide a special insight in the music?

– She writes, and that is all. She does not have to say anything. I understand this language. I understand the score, and Sofia Gubaidulina trusts me. I am lucky, because she always sends me hand written manuscripts. That way I can see how important the small things are. She is a great composer that writes great works, but there are small details and very important connections between them.

What can you tell me about the title, Dialog: Ich und Du?

– It is a dialogue, where I am the orchestra and the violin is the soloist. Like a conversation between two persons. We always pose questions, answer them or comment. We try to talk, understand and explain. The whole concert tries to pose a question, but does not give a clear answer. It is a long conversation. Everyone must follow what is said. At the end everything is open. There is no closure. It continues in the spiritual realm. Most concerts have an ending. Here it is the opposite.

Can you compare this violin concerto to the other two?

– This one is clearer. Not so much material. Less information. More reflection.

«I take new music very seriously, because this is the world I am living in.»

Understanding the music

Andres Mustonen mentions several contemporary composers he has worked with: Arvo Pärt, Alexander Raskatov, John Taverner, Giya Kanchelli, Krzysztof Penderecki.

– For me the music is like a visual artwork. Scores are works of art. You lose that when scores are written on computers. The same notes are used. It can seem like it is the same thing. But when I have direct contact with a composer, then it becomes individual. Then we can reach a much higher spiritual level.

Do you feel like you have a special obligation to perform contemporary music?

– Of course. I take new music very seriously, because this is the world I am living in. Who is able to understand this language, if not us, that are alive here and now? Performing music from the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century is great, but believe me, people do not really understand this music. It is only nice and technically brilliant, but that is something different. Think of the process in the Baltic countries. It is already twenty-eight years ago and already people have forgotten what really happened. How can we understand what happened two hundred years ago?

“Nobody needs CDs. What people need, is to come to concerts.”

We are seated beside the cloak room at the Wabadus café, coats and jackets flap above our heads. There is a wedding upstairs, and laughter, singing and the sound of clapping hands make it hard for us to hear each other. But Mustonen is not distracted. He leans forward and puts even more energy into the conversation.

– In our world we hear lots of music that musicians and audiences do not understand. It is the language we do not understand. Different composers have different languages. You have to study such languages for a long time. How many languages can you learn?

You understand contemporary music better than classical. That is interesting, I tell him.

– In classical music, everything is the same. Just listen to orchestra records. It is not interesting to listen to classical music on a CD. It is also a result of recording techniques. Live recordings are different, but studio recordings are a big problem. Digitalisation makes everything more the same. It is a pity, and is the reason why I do not do CD recordings.

On principal?

– Only if it is really necessary. Some people do it as a part of their career. For me it is the opposite. Nobody needs CDs. What people need, is to come to concerts.

How do you regard Sofia Gubaidulina in comparison with other contemporary composers?

– She is like a Mahler, or Bach. The highest level. She touches on a realm we are losing. She wants to bring back spirituality. I think this realm is important and truthful for many people, but the problem is that the music industry does not understand this. They are not responsible for the spiritual facets of music, only the commercial ones. These facets are at war with one another, it is a tragic situation.

Why is it like this?

– Many composers write commercially. It was like this also in the Baroque era. But Handel, for instance, who was a commercial composer, had so much inside of him, and this spirituality was not ruined. But if you do not have enough inner force… Sofia Gubaidulina, she is so small, where does she get this large music from? Where does she get her force? She is so sure of herself, so direct. She knows. This is music with an ideology. How many composers can speak of ideology?

What is her ideology? Religion?

– Yes, religion, but also something more. Religion in our days can be very poor. Here there is more. The transcendental, the spiritual. It cannot be explained in words. If a composer can write in a way that makes others, a violinist, a conductor, feel and understand, then it is very grand.

Translated by Annika Lisa Belisle

Also published in Norwegian

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