Monday, 5 December 2011

Sofia Gubaidulina LSO Discovery Day

Julie Williams on Sofia Gubaidulina :  Last weekend saw the most recent of a series of educational days put on by the LSO at London's Barbican Centre, stepping at least partly into the gap left by the BBC's traditional Composer Weekend there in January, a longtime out-of-season rendezvous for Prommers. The BBC are in fact continuing to offer educational events for music lovers in the winter season, these are now taking the form of a series of 'Composer Portrait' days, concerning perhaps three composers each year, rather than a long weekend covering a single composer as before. In addition to this, the LSO is offering its own series of educational days, of which this is the first of this year's series.

Those expecting a survey of the composer's oeuvre would have been disappointed or at least somewhat misled, as the focus is much more on one particular work itself; its background, its genesis and the performers involved. A helpful and informative film, shot in Germany where the composer now lives, was shown where the composer spoke about the creation of this work and her approach to writing music generally. This made some comparison with her earlier violin concerto. Chamber works for violin and cello were also performed live by the LSOs principals at the St Lukes venue, giving some insight into her repertoire for strings. In a commitment to innovation, the LSO principals took questions not only from a live audience but also by webinar. The commitment to education was admirable, the titling / description of the event was perhaps a little misleading. Gubaidulina has written in a range of styles and genres and this event did not really give an opportunity for those new to her work to appreciate this. Perhaps more than anything else, this shows the limitations of the one-day format of event.

*In tempus praesens * takes the present moment as its theme – ethereal, transient and beautiful. The composer says of this work, “Only in sleep, religious experience and art are we able to experience lasting present time.” The soloist is pitted against a large deliberately over-scored orchestra, heavy on percussion but devoid of any other violins except hers, suggesting a solitary presence against heavy dark forces. The single movement concerto is uncompromising, coming from the most austere and unrelieved aspect of the composer's quite varied work; it has parallels with her *St John Passion* (whose UK premiere was conducted at the BBC Proms by Gergiev), and with her flute concerto for Sharan Bazaly. In many ways it could be considered almost a 21st century 'concerto against the violin', the violin is certainly in clear opposition to the orchestra.

To mark this important composer's 80th birthday was a fitting tribute to an important musical voice of our times. To choose this demanding work would not have been the easiest introduction to her work. The first violin concerto. 'Offertorium' for Gidon Kremer has an easier appeal, at times humorous; the theme of light amidst darkness is given a gentler and more positive treatment in her lovely cello work for Rostropovich, 'Canticle of the Sun' (performed at BBC Chamber Proms this year by Nathalie Klein). One hopes newcomers to her work will explore further for themselves.

Coming up : LSO Discovery Days on Contemporary British Composers (15/1), Pierre Boulez ( 29/4)

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