By Kyle MacMillan
BOSTON — Some composers lose their creative drive after a certain age; Aaron Copland, for example, did little composing after age 60. But others — like Ludwig van Beethoven or Elliott Carter — remain active throughout their lives. Sofia Gubaidulina falls firmly in the second category. The 85-year-old Soviet-born composer recently completed one of the most ambitious works of her career — the Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Bayan. “There seems to be no lessening of her imagination or her powers,” said Anthony Fogg, artistic administrator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. “It’s pretty amazing.”
The new concerto was originally scheduled to receive its world premiere last fall in Hanover, Germany, by the NDR Radio Philharmonic, one of the work’s four co-commissioners. But when the composition’s completion was delayed, that distinction fell to the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Music director Andris Nelsons will lead the initial performances on Feb. 23-25 at Boston’s Symphony Hall and on Feb. 28 at Carnegie Hall. Gubaidulina is hoping to be in attendance for at least one of them.
“We were disappointed on behalf of our colleagues in Hanover,” noted Fogg, “but on the other hand, we were thrilled that we ended up with the world premiere, which is always a great privilege for any performer.”
Gubaidulina, one of the world’s most respected composers, has a long history with the Boston Symphony, which, in 1988, recorded her Offertorium, a 1980 concerto for violin and orchestra, on the Deutsche Grammophon label with violinist Gidon Kremer under Charles Dutoit. “She was a figure who was known in certain musical circles but not widely,” Fogg said. “So, it was quite a landmark performance in terms of her reputation here in the States.”
The orchestra since has continued its close relationship with Gubaidulina, including naming her composer-in-residence at Tanglewood, its summer home in the Berkshires, in 1995 and commissioning her to write The Light of the End in 2003. “She is a very individual voice,” Fogg said. “It’s easy to recognize Gubaidulina’s music. There’s a sense of spirituality about everything she does. When you meet her, there is a sort of fragile but transcendent quality about her as a person — something very special.”
Little is known about the motivation for Beethoven’s Triple Concerto in C major for Piano, Violin, and Cello, Op. 56 (1804), an unprecedented and by far the best-known work for such a combination of soloists. But notable composers in the 20th century like Bohuslav Martinů, Michael Tippett, and, more recently, Nico Muhly and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich have written works that build on his model.
Aware of Beethoven’s work and of some of its descendants, Gubaidulina made clear in a recent email that she has long appreciated concertos for multiple instruments. “But when I start to create something on my own, I must put aside such feelings,” she said in Russian via a translator. “I cannot recall a single case in my life when any sort of model in the past actually led me to imitate that model or to formulate my own response to it. In other words, what my fantasy needs most of all is an empty space waiting to be filled.”
The composer wrote her Triple Concerto at the behest of Elsbeth Moser, an internationally recognized exponent of the bayan, a type of button accordion developed in Russia in the early 20th century. Because of her involvement, the bayan takes the place of the piano. Gubaidulina and Moser have known each other since 1985, and has avidly championed the composer’s music, performing, for example, Gubaidulina’s Seven Words for cello, bayan, and strings (1982) more than 100 times. Indeed, Moser said she helped the composer flee Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union and resettle in Germany near Hamburg. “The cooperation with this excellent composer has deeply shaped and changed my life as a musician as well as a human being,” Moser said in an email.
There are at least two clear precedents for the Triple Concerto in Gubaidulina’s output. In 1991, around the time of a tense coup d’état attempt against the government of Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, she wrote Silenzio, Five Pieces for Bayan, Violin, and Cello, for Moser. The bayan player said it demonstrated that the three instruments could interrelate well.
Then in 2009, the composer wrote Fachwerk for bayan, drums, and chamber orchestra, which further explored the possibilities of the Russian accordion in a larger concerto format. Moser has long been “fascinated and touched” by Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, and she saw such a work for the bayan as the logical next step. “To choose Sofia Gubaidulina for this idea was obvious to me,” she said in German via a translator.
The Triple Concerto, which runs 25-30 minutes, has two main sections and a coda. “One of the most striking features of Sofia’s music is that she has this ability to hold the musical tension right to the very last moment of a score,” said Fogg, “and she really packs a punch in the last minutes of many of her pieces. This looks to be much the same.”
Although the Triple Concerto might not seem to have a poetic or evocative title in the same way as many of her other pieces, Gubaidulina writes in her accompanying composer’s note that its simple name nonetheless carries significant meaning. As she was composing the work, the number three, which she referred to as “the trinity,” a word with obvious religious overtones, became a key symbol. “This is not only reflected in the number of performers — there are three soloists in front of the orchestra — but also in the tripartite structure of the form and in the simple triads in the texture of the piece,” she writes.
Another compositional device at work in the Triple Concerto is an exploration of the essential characteristic of an overtone series, a fundamental pitch with its accompanying harmonics or overtones. Intervals contract as the tones of the series ascend. Counteracting this pattern at the end of the work is a chord of slowly enlarging intervals. “This way,” Gubaidulina writes, “the piece could be regarded as a revelation of three forces: The expansion force of widening intervals, the contraction of condensing intervals, and the reaction to this cosmological drama.”
Joining Moser for the world premiere are Latvian-born violinist Baiba Skride, a frequent guest soloist with the Boston Symphony who calls Nelsons her “closest musician friend,” and Dutch cellist Harriet Krijgh. The latter, who performs regularly with Skride, will be making both her Boston Symphony and Carnegie Hall debuts with these concerts.
The three soloists rehearsed together in early February in Hanover with Gubaidulina in attendance, what Krijgh described as a “very intense and unforgettable experience.” Whenever one of the musicians asked a question about how to play a certain passage, the composer had a ready and detailed answer. “She has this really strong opinion about things,” the cellist said. “But on the other side, she was also very open and interested [in our points of view]. It was very nice way of working together.”
Because the concerto employs three soloists who are in dialogue with each other and the orchestra, it has a chamber music-like quality. “It’s not one of the most virtuosic, crazy pieces as a technical matter,” Skride said. “It’s a very deep study of how three instruments could work together. For Gubaidulina, it’s very important that every note have its meaning, and it’s very intense.” She added that the bayan brings a dimension to the work that varies from the more conventional piano because it “breathes differently” and requires the other musicians to adjust their timing accordingly.
All three soloists used superlatives like “breathtaking” in talking about the Triple Concerto, but they acknowledged that no one will know exactly how it sounds until the rehearsals and first performances with the Boston Symphony. “It’s still a bit hard to describe the whole piece, because we haven’t played it with the orchestra yet,” Krijgh said. “But you can already feel that it will be something extremely special.”
Kyle MacMillan served as the classical-music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and Modern Luxury and writes for such national publications as the Wall Street Journal, Opera News, Chamber Music and Early Music America.