Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Sir Simon Rattle And The Philadelphia Orchestra Premiere Composer Sofia Gubaidulina's "Feast During A Plague"

Tonight, Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina's newest orchestral work "Feast during a Plague" receives its world premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the guest baton of Berlin Philharmonic conductor Sir Simon Rattle. The work is a co-commission by The Philadelphia Orchestra and The Pittsburgh Symphony, and is inspired by the stunning brief tragedy by Russia's most celebrated poet Aleksandr Pushkin [who lived in the early 19th century and who was of mixed European and African ancestry.] On the second half of the program is William Walton's Symphony #1.

The distinguished music writer (and librettist) Paul Griffeths has provided the Philadelphia Orchestra with a superb Program Note to this World Premiere, which is now available on the Philadelphia Orchestras Web-site. Here is an extract [and model for program note writers elsewhere]:

" ... Several of [Sofia Gubaidulina's] works, even from the ’70s, invoke the Christian story, and her biggest achievement, completed five years ago, is a setting of the Passion and Resurrection narratives from St. John’s Gospel. But in her family background there were also—besides the Russian Orthodox—Jewish and Islamic threads, the latter thanks to her partly Tatar ancestry and her upbringing in cities (her native Chistopol and then Kazan) where the dominant religious building is the mosque. Beyond all that, the sacred books, for her, include the works of poets of the last hundred years, especially Marina Tsvetayeva and Gennady Aygi—poets for whom moments of intense perception and experience bridge us with eternity. Her religion has nothing to do with dogma; it is about reception, vision.


It is also a religion of sound. In what may be her strongest link with the Orthodox tradition, a composition is like an icon: not an image of the sacred but a vessel. What sounds project is, in her world, spiritual substance: light or darkness, gravity or levitation, singleness or multiplicity, distance or nearness, embrace or absence. What happens to sounds is a spiritual journey.

The journey is one we, as listeners, are invited to join, but this is a journey, too, for the performers and, indeed, for the composer. All are discoverers. Gubaidulina has made discovery part of what her music does, seeming to explore and transmute, before our very ears, this invisible stuff that is sound. She has also devoted herself to discovering sound through performing with two younger composers, Viktor Suslin and Vyacheslav Artyomov, in the improvisation group Astreya, which they formed in 1975, generally using folk and ritual instruments.


In the particular case of Feast during a Plague, the journey of sound discovery was instigated by a Pushkin text with the same title, one of the four “little tragedies” the poet wrote during the autumn of 1830, when for three months he was trapped on a country estate as a result of a cholera epidemic. These four pieces were probably intended for reading rather than acting out, for they are all very short: Feast, the shortest, would occupy no more than 20 minutes in the theater. Opera’s time, though, is different, and all four were eventually set, The Miserly Knight by Rachmaninoff, Mozart and Salieri by Rimsky-Korsakov, The Stone Guest by Dargomizhsky, and Feast during a Plague by Cui.

Though this last of the tragedies might have had some personal meaning for a writer living under quarantine, Pushkin’s source was not life but literature—the poem “The City of the Plague” (1816) by the Scottish writer John Wilson. As Pushkin depicts the scene, several favored people have come together in a plague-stricken city to dine, as they do regularly. Since their last evening of merrymaking, one of their number has fallen victim to the disease, and so a toast to him is proposed and drunk. The chairman of the feast then asks one of the two women present, Mary, to sing a sad song, which she does, telling of a village touched by the plague. Thereupon Louisa, the other female guest, mocks Mary for her sentimentality, but falls in a faint at the approach outside of a wagon filled with bodies. On reviving, Louisa wonders if this was a dream. The chairman, called upon for a rousing song to lift everyone’s spirits, chooses to sing a hymn in honor of the plague, trumpeting destructiveness as exhilarating. A priest interjects forcibly to remind the chairman that his own mother was claimed by the plague only three weeks ago. That, the chairman grimly answers, is precisely why he must stay here feasting, why he cannot go home.


Gubaidulina’s score is not an attempt to tell this story in music. Instead, the parable’s basic elements—death and the defiance of death, bodies in robust health and corpses on a wagon, touching or cautionary reminders and their dismissal, a hilarity that is brutal but also befitting—are taken up in a sound drama that has its own narrative drive. And where Pushkin leaves unstated the story’s relevance to his circumstances, we surely are invited to take Gubaidulina’s version as a statement to the times, addressed to an age beset by plagues not only of the body but also of the mind and of the soul. The scoring is for a full symphony orchestra: much of the music is loud; and the gestures are strong.

[The piece lasts ca. 25 minutes] ..."

(c) Paul Griffeths

Russia's most celebrated and beloved poet Aleksandr (Sergeyevich) Pushkin (1799-1837). Pushkin was of mixed European and African ancestry.

Image credit: (Hungary)


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