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A Russian Composer's Path to Freedom

Known for her originality, Sofia Gubaidulina talks about synthesizing intuition and spirituality

By Karen CampbellStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 27, 1997


For the past 60 summers, the harmonious strains of the Boston Symphony Orchestra have been familiar sounds at Tanglewood, the orchestra's summer home in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts.

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But each August for the past 34 years, the hills have come alive with the sound of a very different kind of music, as Tanglewood's summer academy for advanced training hosts the renowned Festival of Contemporary Music.

Perhaps the most remarkable highlight of this summer's festival (Aug. 9-14) was the presence of composer Sofia Gubaidulina, one of the most original, powerful, and highly respected voices in the world of contemporary music.

A lively, soft-spoken woman with warm but piercing eyes and a shock of dark brown curly hair, she is known for a uniquely personal and uncompromising vision. Her experimentation with folk and ritual instruments (as well as unconventional methods of sound production on traditional instruments and voices) combines with an overriding spirituality, the sense that music has the power to move and transform the human spirit.

"She is one of the extraordinary personalities of music today," says Reinbert De Leeuw, the festival's director. "She is a composer going her own path and creating musical worlds that are utterly fascinating."

Having toiled for decades in relative obscurity in Russia, Ms. Gubaidulina was brought to notice in the West primarily by the devoted advocacy of violinist Gidon Kremer, whose repeated performances of the composer's masterly violin concerto "Offertorium" catapulted her to international acclaim in the early 1980s.

Growing acclaim

Since 1985, when she was first allowed to travel to the West, she has become the recipient of numerous awards, commissions, and invitations. (She moved to Hamburg in 1992.) Her recent Viola Concerto, premired by Yuri Bashmet with the Chicago Symphony in April, was given significant critical acclaim, and she just finished a work for legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich to be premired in Paris in October.

Brought to the Festival of Contemporary Music as a visiting composer, Gubaidulina met with young composers and supervised the rehearsals of her works (an evening concert was devoted to her chamber music, and her landmark choral work, "Jetzt immer Schnee," was presented on another mixed-evening concert).

"Intensively working with a living composer is one of the great experiences for a performer," Mr. De Leeuw says, "to understand what the composer had in mind, a work's meaning, why it was notated the way it was. It is wonderful to have her around for that."

It is a role Gubaidulina has embraced with great passion. "Any contact with performers means a great deal, but especially with these young performers, who have been selected from the best from around the world," she says earnestly in Russian, speaking through the translation of Laurel Fay, her close associate at music publishers G. Schirmer Inc. "My role when I work with professionals is to help put the finishing touches on a work. Here, I have the opportunity to awaken something new in the soul of a young performer."

Gubaidulina also relished the opportunity to meet and hear the music of young composers. Her own experience as a young composer meeting an older, more established veteran was a formative one. She grew up during a time in which the role of the composer in Russia was to write music to the glorification of the political regime. It was officially sanctioned only if it adhered to a fairly strict system of tonality, and the password was conformity.