Saturday, March 26, 2005

Russian new music concert

Tonight our orchestra is playing a program of new music by Russian composers - we've just finished our dress rehearsal, so I thought I would write my thoughts about the concert, and then I can link to the newspaper if it gets reviewed so you can get the critic's take.

The first piece on the program is for solo violin and a chamber orchestra without violins - it is called Aftersight, by a composer named Kissine, and I don't play on it. I listened to a bit of the rehearsal though, and it sounded good. The soloist, Alexander Barantschik who is concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony, plays it very convincingly and there are a lot of interesting orchestration effects to listen to.

In our system of string seating rotation, I got to be principal bass for the next piece, called Stufen by Sofia Gubaidulina. I was initially a little concerned, because much of the bass part is divided into 8 parts, and we only have 7 bass players. I quickly realized, though, that the intent was less like a Bach 8-part invention and more like a bunch of insects chirping on a summer evening. The effect is to sound just random and independent enough that there could be an infinite amount of people playing. While the notes and rhythms are a bit tricky, the effect is actually quite easy to pull off, I was pleasantly surprised to discover. I think the piece should come off very effectively, as long as the tape of Russian poetry starts when it is supposed to. The end of the piece features seven deep male voices reciting the same poem with different speeds and intonations, so that you can barely pick out more than short phrases, even if you understand Russian. It is kind of a spooky, mysterious way to end a piece, as long as the orchestra doesn't crack up listening to it.

The other piece for full orchestra is by Alfred Schnittke, and it is called In memoriam. In memoriam to whom, I'm not sure, though playing it I can't help thinking about Shostakovich all the time. It has a simple little theme that recurs in each of the five movements, including a beautiful waltz movement with solo clarinet. Another movement has a little aleatoric section - MTT, the conductor, said today in rehearsal that the reason for this is that "everyone goes ape a little differently", which I thought was a strangely profound thought. The bass section doesn't really do much, other than some solo harmonics and low B's. Our lowest note is normally a low C, so in cases like this we have to tune our lowest string down an extra half step, and try to remember so we don't play the wrong pitches in the rest of the piece. This isn't too difficult in this case, though - in one of the movements, we only play a single note. I was joking with my stand partner that I really disagreed with our interpretation of this movement, we need to sit with a slight more forward tilt to express the intensity of our 47 bars of rest. The last movement is a beautiful passacaglia with a 14-bar organ theme repeated 14 times.

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