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An Offering You Can't Refuse 

Wednesday, Feb 27 2002
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Photo by Mats LundquistFinally, and not a moment too soon, the Philharmonic has gotten around to Sofia Gubaidulina. Her Offertorium — composed in 1980, twice revised since then, dedicated to Gidon Kremer, who also made the first recording — remains one of the brainiest and most challenging works of our time. Guest conductor Alan Gilbert led a performance best described as heroic; Philharmonic concertmaster Martin Chalifour’s execution of the solo violin part was of like quality. The audience last Thursday night didn’t quite get it; the applause was sporadic and paltry. This is music that needs to be lived with and puzzled over.

It makes a fascinating study. Bach’s Musical Offering provided the theme and the title; it was smart of Gilbert to preface the performance with Anton Webern’s reworking of some of the same music. The theme itself, legend has it, was furnished to Bach by Prussia’s King Frederick II. Legend or not, those 20 notes, with their dissonant downward leap balanced by an elegant chromatic resolution, are a fountainhead of musical inspiration, as Bach, Webern and Gubaidulina handsomely demonstrate. Gubaidulina’s way with those notes is by some distance the most savage.

At first hearing, she stops just short of completion. Over the next 40 or so minutes the theme is further reduced, torn apart, swirled through a huge orchestra that includes a vast battery of percussion. Through all this brutal fragmentation, one unifying factor remains, that dissonant downward leap; it serves as a DNA that maintains the tortured face of Bach visible through the cataclysm. Now and then — but not often — we are allowed a breath or two, as the music recedes and the solo violinist takes flight in wild cadenzas. For the most part, we hang on as best we can, faced with this torrent that manages at once to be both obsessive and rhapsodic.

I wrote about Gubaidulina last November, as several recordings of her music appeared simultaneously. Kremer’s recording of Offertorium is still available, on Deutsche Grammophon, and I urge it upon you, as a piece of wonderfully stirring — and, yes, irritating — music, but also as a fascinating study on the way a composer, in the course of establishing herself as a contemporary voice, learns to profit by the living relics of the past. If I were running a school for composers — no thanks, however — I would assign every student the task of carving some kind of new music out of Bach’s (or King Frederick’s) pregnant theme.

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For the 35-year-old Gilbert the concert marked a triumphant return; he had previously stood in for the ailing Roger Norrington in May 1998. On the podium he is immensely likable: his beat strong and clear, his manner free from gadgetry. The Tchaikovsky “Pathétique” — made clear-headed, strong and agreeably drool-free — ended the program, and drew the deserved cheers that the Gubaidulina had been denied. I want to write more about Tchaikovsky next week, after Opera Pacific’s Eugene Onegin.

Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum, which filled the air of UCLA’s Royce Hall the next night with mysterious shimmer and shimmering mystery, dates from about the same time as Offertorium. Both are by composers oppressed by the yoke of Soviet censorship who achieved their current high regard only after leaving their respective homelands. I would not belabor any further similarities, but hearing those two overpowering works on successive nights has been beneficial to my outlook on life, not to mention my metabolism. The Te Deum came after two big choral pieces by Vivaldi, and rounded out an evening of spellbinding music-making by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra under Tönu Kaljuste. They have been here before, but not nearly often enough.

Pärt has written about his music as comparable to “white light, which contains all colors,” with the “spirit of the listener” as prism. This Te Deum is, indeed, a creation fashioned out of color. It emerges from a darkness dimly perceived; its harmonies go on for minutes as a kind of bleached-out gray, pierced now and then by a single diatonic chord like a flash of gold. There is a swatch of dark red now and then, but not often and not for long. At the end a small group of voices intones a threefold “Sanctus,” many times repeated ever more softly, fading finally to silence; if there is a more beautiful ending in all music it doesn’t come immediately to mind. (The Gubaidulina also ends extraor dinarily, by the way, like a sudden halt at the brink of a precipice.)

The Estonians are a marvelous performing force, as their many discs — including the Te Deum on ECM — emphatically prove. The Pärt work called for a string orchestra with a prepared piano and with a deep bass note — on tape, played on an Aeolian wind-harp — serving as ground zero; two Vivaldi psalm settings used the chorus and orchestra (with a couple of winds and a small portative organ) split into two answering groups, with vocal soloists drawn from the 28-member chorus. I always think of Estonia’s flag — white, black and a particularly clean, cold blue — when I hear that country’s music: slightly cool, efficient, modest. I must go there sometime.

Meanwhile, back at the Philharmonic . . . The orchestra has a splendid addition in its recently appointed assistant conductor Yasuo Shinozaki, who had his innings the previous week as replacement for the ailing Hans Vonk in an all-Beethoven program. Short and not quite sylphlike, Shinozaki cuts a dynamic figure on the podium, including a tendency toward jumping at moments of high enthusiasm. He conducted a terrific program: a big, hair-raising Leonore No. 3 that whipped up a fair amount of tension leading to the “rescuing” offstage trumpet call; a final “Pastoral” Symphony nicely paced and, again, remarkably propulsive toward its great, stormy climax. André Watts’ unevenful saunter through the Fourth Piano Concerto was the evening’s only disappointment. At a mere 55, with so much of an illustrious career in his résumé, he should not yet be mangling as many notes, and missing as much of the poetry in this music, as he did that night.

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