A Plethora of Amazement
By Janos Gereben
The North American premiere of Sofia Gubaidulina's 2007 Violin Concerto
No. 2, "In tempus praesens" (In the present time) arrived Thursday as
an important musical event, revealing a strong, compelling, unusual,
The soloist, Anne-Sophie Mutter (who had commissioned the 2007 concerto),
gave a stunningly brilliant performance, with the highest of notes (close
to scraping the instrument's bridge), rock solid, overtones swirling in
the air... all without visible or audible effort.
Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony gave their all,
playing the difficult score with seamless excellence. New work, tough
work: and yet Davies Hall was full. The reception for this eminently
"modern" work: long, enthusiastic, sincere applause on Thursday, a
standing ovation on Friday.
And what was the collaboration between composer and violinist in creating
the concerto? Asked by conductor James Gaffigan in the pre-concert
"Inside Music" program, the simple question elicited an extraordinary
response from a slyly smiling Gubaidulina. She gave the finished score
to Mutter one hour before the first rehearsal. The violinist sightread
and played it - to Gubaidulina's surprised satisfaction, and quite to
the disbelief of anyone in the audience.
The orchestration is without violins. Why? "I have my violinist,"
said Gubaidulina, referring to Mutter. Most concertos pitch the soloist
against the orchestra, the hero against the world, but "in this case the
relationship is different," says the composer, "the violin initiates
something, it lights the fire." (Those in the know say only Hindemith's
Kammermusik No. 4 has strings but no violins.)
The 35-minute concerto seems longer not because it's "too long," but
because it packs in so much, alternates between moods, scenes, emotions,
in a seemingly endless variety.
And who was the stranger as the concertmaster? First chair viola (no
violins, see above) was Jonathan Vinocour, principal violist in St.
Louis, playing a trial week with SFS in the auditions for the positions
here. What luck to fly by on the probably the only occasion when the
violas take command!
The concerto opens with a simple, lyrical, yearning theme on violin
alone, a kind of question, to which two brief "answers" are given, one
in major, the other in minor key. The orchestra enters in a disjointed
conversation - not an adversary, more an observer.
The orchestration is wondrously colorful, with harp, xylophone, a
Wagner tuba, a mighty timpani duel (reminiscent of the finale of Nielsen's
Symphony No. 4), high notes at the edge of audibility (dogs may get
even more out of this than humans), scherzos, extreme rubato, and a
hair-raising orchestral thud repeated 41 times, somehow never becoming
Through it all, consistently dominating, is the solo violin, with a
brilliant presence, but not as adversary. If the concerto were an opera,
Mutter would be the whole cast of singers, the voice floating above the
thoughts and feelings of the orchestra. It's all a varied, mysterious,
beautiful musical landscape; once traversed, there is no "understanding"
of it, only the desire to see, or rather, hear it again.
There is a climax near the end, which lesser composers would use as
culmination of the work, but not Gubaidulina: she has a quiet, magical
sound close the work, a kind of disappearance, rather than Beethovenian
"this is it!"
The program-opening 1926 Prokofiev "American Overture," Op. 42, has a
feeling and unusual orchestration similar to what Gubaidulina wrote 80
years later. The two works are both modern-but-tonal, lively and engaging.
The second half of the concert was all-Ravel, the 1911 "Valses nobles
et sentimentales," and the 1920 "La Valse." Would all that waltz make
for a monotonous concert? Not in the least. The longer work is full
of contrasts and quirks in itself, ranging from wistful to explosive,
and both pieces received such a dazzling treatment from MTT and the
orchestra that monotomy was not within the realm of the possible.
For anyone tempted to classify MTT as a "Mahler conductor" or one with
special affinity for American works, these concerts have served to tag
him additionally as a Ravel colorist of the first order. Tim Day's flute
and Carey Bell's clarinet lead the way for an orchestra at its best all
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