Revisiting Sofia Gubaidulina: Feast During A Plague – Naomi Yoran

I just came back from a long trip to Israel and I have some "old Business" to attend to. Right after taking care of my "earthly matters" I feel a strong need to get back to my favorite pursuit: recording my reactions & impressions during and following the PSO classical music concerts.

Two months ago to the day, I listened to the performance of ‘Feast During a Plague’ by the Russian Composer Sofia Gubaidulina. This was on a Saturday evening. I came back on Sunday and listened to it again. This music took me by storm. So much so that Beethoven’s ‘Overture to Coriolan’ faded fast away and even after the intermission I could not concentrate on Brahms’ ‘Violin Concerto’ which I love so much (& believe that Joshua Bell performed it perfectly).

I remember another concert which compelled me back for second hearing: Vali’s ‘The Being of Love’. Both compositions were World Premiere performances. Reza Vali brought me back to taste once more his longing, mystery, sorrow & beauty of the essence of Love. Sofia Gubaidulina
brought me back to experience once more dredful, demonic, apocalyptic
music. I have no intentions to "compare & Contrast" these two
composers (although it might be a very interesting exercise…) it is
just that in both concerts I felt a need "not to let go".

I want to explain one of my habits relating to listening to a new
piece of music: I never read the program notes before the concert. The
name & origin of the composer and the time of composition is all I
wish to know. I really do not care for experts interpretations. I don’t
even want to know the composer’s intentions. What I want is to
experience, feel & absorb the music and let my associations flow
freely. Later, after the concert, having my "own narrative", I read the
notes. Not always "we" are in agreement. So what? Let’s have a

Going back to ‘Feast During a Plague’. I never heard before any music by Gubaidulina. I knew she is Russian, born in 1931 and was commissioned by the PSO & the Philadelphia Orchestra to compose a piece in 2005.

The title evoked visions of Expressionist German Art from the
begining of the last century: shock, contradiction and a hadful of
distaste. This art speaks to me. Surprisingly, the first musical phrase
sounded as an echo of Shostakovich. (Paying homage?) Than the music
took of, developing its own language. I was captured by waves of
intense, lyrical, demonic, playful, sarcastic sounds following each
other, many times overlapping. The dissonance was not just disturbing,
it was frightening! All the same:it captured me totally. I was
transfixed. As always, associasions & glimpses of thoughts and
questions came forward: this is not "a story line"; this is a metaphore
for some gruesome existence, an apocalypse in the making… But do I
hear light-hearted beats in the background? And from where do I hear
the trumpets? Where are the drums? I can’t see them on stage…The
music changes from being fragmented to melodic and back to almost
chaos. Still, I grasp structure in the chaos, form in the fragments and
beauty in the fear… Is this Hell? The music concludes in silence…
the kind of silence which does not promise me any rest… I am left
disturbed with open questions. I am greatful and I need to hear it

On my way home, reflecting on the composer, her possible life
experiences as a young artist in a despotic State (again, Shostakovich
comes to mind), living during war, state propaganda, getting older
during new freedoms but much civil unrest, general poverty sprinkled
with instant wealth of a few, observing cruel order transformed into
chaotic freedom… You can’t be an artist and not be affected by it.
And now, in old age, in our time, the music she offers us, (as an
outsider?) ‘Feast During a Plague’, is it a metaphor for
the past? The present? Is it a fable projected into the future? I don’t
need to answer these questions. I am so greatful for the music which
brought them up.

Prior to the Sunday concert, I went to the pre-concert talk, presented by Resident Conductor Daniel Meyer.
Among other musical insights, he talked about the pre-recorded music
and its integration into a live performance. Superb! I liked the
additional layer of drama and I loved the idea of having different
experiences whether you listen to a live performance or to a record.
(One more reason to be at a live concert!!!) So what is the meaning of
it? On my second hearing, already anticipating the "hidden music", I
recognized the lighthearted, almost decadent music, and later, toward
the conclusion & climax, the notion that the "demons" were hidden…

Later in the evening I read the program notes. I liked most of it,
but when I came to the composer’s notes I was dismayed… So much of Gubaidulina’s
"manifesto" was just irritating. I felt as though she could not trust
us… feeding us with didactic, simplistic rhetorics. I felt
embarrassed for her… I guess she was asked to explain her music to
the American public. I wish she would have declined. Sofia Gubaidulina is a great composer. Her music speaks for itself.

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