Gubaidulina at the Barbican, Wolfie Adams at the Lakeside

Sunday 21 January 2007

The year has begun in its traditional way, with the confluence of darts finals on the telly and the Barbican’s annual weekend with a not-quite-dead composer. It seems I missed a nailbiting final, as this review describes in satisfying detail what makes watching people watching darts so enjoyable (“That’s the brilliant thing about darts – the honesty.”)
This year’s composer was Sofia Gubaidulina, whose music I’m not sure about. I’d heard a few pieces, which ranged from great (Offertorium) to tedious and pedantic (Sieben Worte), so this seemed like a good time to skip the darts and find out which of these works was the exception to the rule.
The big Friday night concert presented all of Gubaidulina’s orchestral ‘Nadeyka’ Triptych for the first time. The first piece, a violin concerto called The Lyre of Orpheus, contained some of the attributes that makes Offertorium such a strong piece – a sombre capital-B Beauty, and an imaginative use of tonal colour, such as the combination of violin and percussion instruments – on a more limited and modest scale. This law of diminishing returns continued to assert itself as the evening wore on.
After the performance of the second piece, ‘…The Deceitful Face of Hope and of Despair’, one reviewer called the solo flautist “mannered”, because he didn’t have enough space to print “evil wind-up Bridget Fonda doll who thinks she’s the conductor”. The music didn’t help, giving her lots of free time to mince around on stage in between aping the opening gesture of Varèse’s Density 21.5 over and over again. This is a problem that recurs with the lesser, academically-acceptable composers: they don’t know what to do with instruments less familiar than piano and strings, so they all tend to write for the same instruments in the same way. Gubaidulina is not the only composer to copping flute gestures from Varèse’s piece and generally faking along with other flute clichés like trills and whirling chromatic runs, strung together into the semblance of real flute music.
In case the title of the previous piece wasn’t portentous enough for you, the final work, for large orchestra and tape, was called A Feast During the Plague. For the better part of half an hour the orchestra heaved and groaned through a sludgy, turgid, overbearing score that played like a parody of Serious Modern Music. The tape (deliberately incongruous techno breaks interrupting the orchestra) was poorly executed and carelessly played through speakers either side of the stage. Combined with the orchestra’s bombast, it left everyone in the audience feeling bemused, belaboured and mildly embarassed.
I can more or less agree with the start of this review:

The more one listens to Sofia Gubaidulina’s music, the less one likes it. Such disenchantment comes, it should be added, from hearing it in quantity. Performed in isolation, her works often give the impression of stark originality. However, placed end to end in this year’s BBC composer weekend, they revealed startling limitations of emotional range.

Music not being sentient, I don’t care about its perceived emotional range, be it limited or not. Xenakis stuck to one level of expression for pretty much his entire life and I don’t have a problem with his music the way I do with Gubaidulina’s. It’s not that perpetually pained religiosity, that has helped so many eastern European composers find favour with western critics, which I find objectionable; just that it is used to sustain poorly-constructed, numbingly literal music.
The afternoon concerts at St Giles at Cripplegate of Gubaidulina’s string quartets showed both her strengths and her weaknesses as a composer in a better light. Quartets allow less room for bombast, and these pieces were allowed by the composer to relate to listeners on musical terms alone, rather than asked to bear a heavy, ungainly spiritual message that neither the medium nor the composer could sustain. The musical ideas were interesting and quite unusual, but each successful passage seemed to hang around a little too long: she always seemed too intrigued by the effects to properly integrate them into a cohesive composition.
Finally, by way of a wholly gratuitous and unenlightening anecdote, I feel compelled to observe that Gubaidulina, present at all the concerts, wore the same damn shirt on each of the three days.