NEW YORK — FOR Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina, 1988 was a very good year. Glasnost was proceeding apace, and there were promising signs the composer was about to receive some overdue recognition, both inside and outside the Soviet Union.
In 1984, Ms. Gubaidulina thought her prospects for wide Western exposure were dim. "It is doubtful that I would be allowed to come to the US, but still an official invitation would be most welcome," she told an interviewer. That invitation finally came four years later when the University of Louisville School of Music in Kentucky invited her to join its "Sound Celebration." Her intellectual intensity and energy made a strong impression. Later, her music was critically acclaimed by several important East Coast critics at the Boston-based "Making Music Together," a festival of contemporary Soviet and American music.
It seemed that the floodgates were about to open. Her music was also championed by conductors such as Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and Dennis Russell Davies and by several chamber groups, including the Kronos, Arditti, and Muir quartets.
Gubaidulina once remarked that inside the Soviet Union "men work at music as a business, but women have to create their own publicity to be recognized." Ironically, that applies to Gubaidulina as much now as it did a decade ago. Certainly, when compared to the fortunes of her contemporary, Alfred Schnittke, the expected deluge of performances never materialized. While many of Schnittke's large-scale works for full orchestra are regularly performed by major American ensembles, there have been few of Gubai dulina's large works heard on this side of the Atlantic.
It has been left to chamber ensembles to keep Gubaidulina's music before the public. The Kronos Quartet, which performs Gubaidulina's Quartet No. 2 (1987) this Saturday evening at New York's Alice Tully Hall, has been an important force. They have performed this work since 1987, and they will release it on a compact disc due out in January. The Kronos has also commissioned a new quartet, which will be Gubaidulina's fourth.
"She came to hear us ... in Amsterdam, and she saw a number of things that we do in our concerts with lighting and staging," Kronos violinist David Harrington says. "There are some of these kinds of things that she has wanted to do for many years now, and we want her to feel free to experiment in the new quartet."
It is easy for audiences to lump together Gubaidulina and Schnittke, two of the most important Russian composers to emerge after the death of Dmitri Shostakovich in 1975. Even Mr. Harrington, who stresses the differences between Schnittke and Gubaidulina, sees a strange link between them: "When you get around these two there is a certain aura about them. Hers is really youthful and joyous; Schnittke, though I've only met him once, has an incredible quality of gravity to him." But in many ways Gubaidulin a stands alone. Her music seems mostly free of Shostakovich's influence, which often manifests itself as a crippling tendency to take music far too seriously, and treat every score as a major confessional.
Gubaidulina has acknowledged the influence of Bach, Gesualdo, and Webern. Of Webern and Shostakovich she says, "Although my music bears no apparent traces of it, these two composers taught me the most important lesson of all: to be myself." That's probably true in relation to Shostakovich, but the influence of Webern, who composed short, spare works of lapidary perfection, is clearly heard in several of her pieces.
Richard Dyer, music critic of the Boston Globe, offers another reason for her slow rise to popularity: "She is a composer in the line of Faure in that she writes music that will always appeal to a small number of sophisticated listeners.... Gubaidulina is a great composer, but she's a connoisseur's composer."