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The fearless musical philosophy of Sofia Gubaidulina

A new album marks the 90th birthday of Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina.
A new album marks the 90th birthday of Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina.

The Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina is something of a musical philosopher. She likes to grapple with life's big questions as filtered through her deep faith, both in God and in the transformational power of music. "The art of music is capable of touching and approaching mysteries and laws existing in the cosmos and in the world," she said after winning a prestigious award in 2017.

Gubaidulina turned 90 on Oct. 24. To mark the occasion, a new album has been released featuring three of her most intellectually probing works, scored for huge orchestral forces. The music can roar like a jet plane or whisper in intimate, mysterious episodes — but no matter what, it needs to be performed by an orchestra of supreme agility and focus which is exactly what can be found in these ferocious performances by conductor Andris Nelsons and the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig.

The opening salvo is titled Dialog: I and You, but it's really more of an argument about our relationships to everything around us, disguised as a violin concerto. It was inspired by the philosopher Martin Buber's 1923 book I and Thou, and you can hear it in the music. Listen for the violin, played by Vadim Repin, making a bold statement, while the brass-heavy orchestra shouts it down.

Gubadulina's career path has had its ups and downs. She grew up poor in the rural Tatar region of the Soviet Union, where "it was as if there was no map for a child's development," she said in a 1990 documentary. She explains in that BBC program that she spent a lot of her childhood sitting in a bare yard looking up to the sky to feed her imagination, adding, "I began to live up there."

She was able to study composition in Moscow, where she played some of her unconventional music for the revered composer Dmitri Shostakovich. He encouraged her by suggesting that she continue down her "incorrect path" — in other words, don't compromise. That path led to music awards, but also official blacklisting by the Soviet Composers' Union, which denounced her music as "noisy mud." In 1973, a person believed to be a KGB operative tried to strangle Gubaidulina in the elevator of her apartment building. She scared him off by asking him why he was taking so long to kill her.

The composer arrived at a fierce faith in God, something you can hear in the fierceness of her music: Nothing says "God is angry" better than a horde of snarling tubas. That's the sound that opens The Wrath of God, a 17-minute piece that, due to the pandemic, premiered in an empty concert hall in Vienna in December of 2020. It's not for the faint of heart. Still, for all its angst, the piece contains moments of luminous delicacy. She dedicated it to Beethoven, and in the thrilling final measures, she tips a hat to his Ninth symphony amid gleaming brass fanfares.

This is an album of confrontations, and in the final piece, The Light of the End, the conflict is between us and nature. It's a battle heard right there in the music, as Gubaidulina contrasts the very physics of music itself. There's an eerie skirmish between horn and cello, each playing in a separate tuning system – one natural and the other tempered.

Gubaidulina's album is proof of at least two things: the immense power of a symphony orchestra firing on all cylinders, especially in these super-charged performances, and the fertile imagination of a wise, long-lived composer still offering transformative music.

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