Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sofia Gubaidulina in The Morning

On Wednesday morning, February 18th, I went to a San Francisco Symphony "Open Rehearsal" which is featured for a number of concerts each year.

The doors open at 8:30 AM where, according to all accounts, there is a frenzied struggle for the free doughnuts being offered to the mostly elderly crowd.

Seating is general admission which can be problematic if you arrive closer to 10 AM when the rehearsal actually starts. For instance, I sat down in one of the empty seats above, but was told by a lady four seats to the right that "those seats are already taken." And how would anybody know that's the case, I asked her, since they weren't marked in any way with programs or jackets. "Well, I just happen to know that they are taken and people will be coming back to sit there," she replied in an affronted voice.

It was too early in the day for an argument so I moved and settled in for a rehearsal of the evocatively titled "The Light of the End" by Sofia Gubaidulina. The 77-year-old Russian composer sounded like a forbidding figure on paper. Her musical work was suppressed by Soviet authorities for decades for various reasons, including her conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1960s and her adherance to mystical numerology. She moved to a village near Hamburg, Germany in the early 1990s, and since then her music has become the latest flavor at symphonic organizations around the Western world, and she's received just about every cultural award that world has to offer.

The San Francisco Symphony commissioned a new piece from Gubaidulina as part of a two-week "Composer Residency" which the organization has launched this year. The composer, however, isn't very good at deadlines since she takes her genius seriously, so her new piece wasn't ready and the 2003 "The Light of the End" was being played instead in a program being led by Kurt Masur. Though Gabaidulina can be hilariously gloomy in interviews, there's nothing gloomy about the sound of her music which is a strange combination of rich colors that manage to be both dense and transparent. The rehearsal was wonderful, and I was hoping she was telling Masur to play the entire thing over again, but it seems she was perfectly satisfied with the runthrough.

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