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Soviet composers turn inner faith into musical form at Boston festival

By Jonathan RichmondSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 29, 1988


The month-long festival in which Soviets and Americans are ``Making Music Together'' here has been full of surprises. But one of the most startling discoveries has been to find religious faith animating some of the most vibrant Soviet works yet performed in this event - works by composers from an avowedly atheist state. Equally startling, however, has been the wide divergence of Soviet viewpoints about the significance of this music and the degree to which its true intent must be disguised in the Soviet Union, even during the new era of glasnost (openness).

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In public discussions between Soviets and Americans during the festival it appeared that glasnost had brought free expression for Soviet composers, including the freedom to produce religious works like Alfred Schnittke's ``Requiem Mass,'' which was performed here.

``Gorbachev has given us carte blanche,'' said Soviet composer Karen Khachaturian, whom recent emigr'e Soviet pianist Vladimir Feltsman, reached by phone in New York, describes as ``a strictly official musician with very deep connections with the nonmusical [establishment].'' A visiting Soviet music critic, Lev Ginsburg, said he believed it ``possible'' to get music on contemporary religious themes accepted. Yuri Melentev, minister of culture in the Russian Republic, said it was ``a great nonsense'' to suggest otherwise.

But Dmitri Pokrovsky, whose folk ensemble is including liturgical music on its programs in Boston, said that, while there are fewer problems now in performing such work than in years past, the problems ``still do exist,'' especially in the Ukraine. And Mr. Feltsman said that he did not think it would be possible to play music set to contemporary Hebrew texts ``in open concert,'' not only because of the difficulties in getting concert hall management and Ministry of Culture approval, but because ``first of all, you have to find the musicians who would like to do it.''

Feltsman further explained that Soviet composers support themselves through sales of work to the Ministry of Culture, which routinely purchases new compositions. While mediocre overtures and chamber music could easily be sold to the ministry, he said, to have a chance with a requiem mass, ``you have to write really good music.'' As a result, ``many people have a great sense of self-censorship.''

Composer Sophia Gubaidulina, also in town for the festival, essentially agreed: ``The composer is not prevented from writing,'' she said. ``The more important question is: Is it going to be performed? ... Is it going to be published?'' In the Soviet Union, her composition ``Seven Words'' (based on the last seven words of Jesus on the cross), during which the cello bow makes the sign of the cross, is known simply as ``Partita for Cello and Bajan.'' ``Difficulties are avoided by not giving it a title,'' she said. ``In other words, ... do it in a symbolic way, but don't advertise.''

Mr. Ginsburg, who supplied the festival with an extensive set of biographical and musicological notes on the composers visiting Boston, avoids the subject of religion completely, even when writing about Schnittke and Gubaidulina, in whose lives and compositions religion plays a central role.

In the Schnittke ``Requiem,'' the music speaks for itself. Unlike so many of the Soviet compositions heard during the festival, Schnittke's music comes from the inner world and operates at profound levels and to sublime effect. Although the musical antecedents of the ``Requiem'' are very Russian, the unusual ability of Schnittke's music to intimately convey deep grief, but simultaneously soothe and uplift the spirit, seemed quintessentially Mozartean.

Schnittke's novel choice of instrumentation - including organ, piano, electric guitar, and a host of percussion instruments - made for some unusual sounds, but Boston conductor Sarah Caldwell successfully knitted the varied instrumental voices of her ensemble into a cohesive whole.

The opening and closing movements of the ``Requiem'' have a quiet polyphonic holiness to them, which was insightfully exposed by the open, honest singing of the New England Conservatory Chorus. The measured, gentle sounding of a bell-like chime contributed to a sense of timelessness, which, in the first movement, served to draw the audience into Schnittke's special world, and, in the last movement, to send them away with a feeling of inner tranquillity and spiritual refreshment.

The middle movements link together organically, exploring a series of tensions waiting to be resolved harmoniously in the finale. The spreading of voices in the ``Dies irae'' suggest an angry confusion; the insistent buildup of rhythmic pulse in the ``Rex tremendae'' generates much excitement; and the softness of timpani adds pathos to the ``Lacrimosa.'' The dulcet tones of tenor Noel Velasco in the ``Sanctus'' were particularly touching. The subtlety of the choir in the ``Benedictus'' made it a movement of solemnity - mournful, but also rejuvenating.