Musical feasts by modern Russian composers

Musical feasts of emotions that bind people together: new works by Rodion Shchedrin and Sofia Gubaidulina are performed at the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg.

While the rest of Europe has a string of second lockdowns, Mariinsky Theatre continued to shine and arrange daily repertoire of ballet, opera and orchestral music for its three spaces (Mariinsky-1, Mariinsky-2 and Concert Hall) through the autumn season. Moreover, never had St Petersburg residents a chance to see such a constant flow of opera and ballet stars as many of them could only perform in Russia during this time. The energy and leadership of the Artistic Director, Maestro Valery Gergiev, has definitely been behind this buzzing activities. Two performances of works by living Russian composers who have already established themselves as classics of contemporary music, stand out from the array of other outstanding events. On the evening of 22 November 2020 an oratorio Über Liebe und Hass (On Love and Hatred) by Berlin-based Sofia Gubaidulina (the composer will celebrate her 90th birthday in 2021) was performed. It had in fact received its premiere in Mariinsky Concert Hall in 2018, and thus it was only the second time it was performed in St Petersburg.

On Love and Hatred is quite an unusual work for perception: the one that definitely speaks directly to our uneasy moment. It was written after the composer had read a text of a prayer in an Irish collection found in a Benedictian monastery. Although it was first published in German in 1912 (with anonymous author), it is traditionally believed that its author was Francis de Assisi. The oratorio comprises different layers of human emotion: hatred, despair, devotion, erotic passion, human love, love to God. For Gubaidulina, the mission of the artist is in forming a dirct link between the human soul and heaven: she wishes to create a ‘legato’, a sustained connection between our lives and high moral and religious aspirations. Oratorio is not an abstract journey or an exercice in avant-garde composing skills: it is very direct, very painful, very honest treatment of themes that pervade our experience of living this life. The composer becomes a preacher, a monk, a guide, our own psychologist in letting us approach these areas through texts and music. Gubaidulina leaves freedom for actual interpretation, indicating that the texts could be perfomed in German, Italian, French or otherwise (Russian), as she herself also compiled her oratorio from different sources.

The work consists of 15 different extracts linked into a certain thread (leading from agony to enlightement) and features soloists (bass, baritone, tenor and soprano), a mixed choir and an extended orchestra that allows us to physically feel the massive proportions of the composer’s appeal. German texts make us imagine that we are present in a Catholic cathedral, while Russian texts lead towards emotions that we could experience during a Russian Orthodox service. An overall sense of poignancy inspired by the importance of the composer’s message fulfills the viewer during the evening. The mixed choir is positioned at the special choir seats that is part of Concert Hall’s design, while the soloists – the bass Mikhail Petrenko, the baritone Vladimir Moroz, the tenor Mikhail Vekua, and the soprano Irina Churilova – are based in the left corner of the stage. Some moments in the oratorio let the soloists sing almost a capella, some (‘Bitterer Haas) even have episodes when the singer speaks out the words of hate, hesitantly asking himself: ‘Do I hate?’. The majority of oratorio’s episodes are written for each respective soloist (joined by the choir and orchestra), while‘Aus dem Hohelied’ (‘Out of The Songs of Songs’) has a duet of lovers expressing their earthly passion. The oratorio is indeed a powerful, unforgettable, almost ritualistic ride through the variety of human emotions, allowing us to observe them, to comprehend them better and also to immerse ourselves in the cathedrals of human longings. Valery Gergiev showed an outstanding mastery and understanding of Gubaidulina’s intentions in leading the Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra, its choir and soloists – and most importantly – the audiences – through this revealing, overwhelming, encompassing journey.

The second work by living Russian composer was performed just two days after the first concert, on November 24, 2020. It was a world premiere of a new work for soloists, reader and orchestra by a famour resident of St Petersburg – the 88-year-old Rodion Shchedrin. Shchedrin has a special relationship with Mariinsky Theatre and Valery Gergiev – many of his operas have been premiered here, and his new work – Lolita – has just received a Golden Mask nomination. The composer’s new work is called ‘The Adventures of an Ape’ and has a long subtitle featuring its eight soloists (one of them being a professional whistler) and dedication to Shchedrin’s wife, the ballet dancer Maya Plisetskaya. This orchestral work is based on a short story by Mikhail Zoshchenko that, although intended for schoolchildren, at a time caused its author a lot of trouble, as it was accused of negative presentation of Soviet life. In the story a little monkey (that has certain anthropomorphic features, as its thoughts are spoken out) escapes the zoo after bombing (and here is the eery, dark side of the funny story – it happens in the beginning of the Second World War) and starts marching through the town in search for food, with a succession of different people claiming it as theirs. Finally, a pioneer Alyosha Popov is given the right to take the monkey home, as he is the one who truly loves it, while the monkey eventually learns human rules of behaviour and stops stealing candy from his Grandma.

The sparkling invention of Zoshchenko finds its rival in the imagination of Rodion Shchedrin. He allows us to feel the atmosphere of the walk and the town through introducing orchestral effects that resemble different everyday sounds (never using the electronics), and thus percussion (soloists: Sergey Buranov and Gleb Logvinov) plays a particularly important role during the evening. Moreover, each character (a man from the public sauna [banya], a pioneer, onlookers on the street, the monkey) get their own leitmotifs performed in a virtuoso style by Mariinsky Orchestra instrumental soloists: Sofia Viland (flute), Sofia Kiprskaya (harp), Timur Martynov (trumpet) and Alexander Afanasyev (horn). There are even occasional episodes of masterful whistling from Viktor Korotych. The most unusual discovery of the evening (and there had been quite a few already) was the reader who brought the full story alive – the actress Polina Malikova-Tolstun who managed to deliver every small nuance of the narration, making it tangible, almost visualized and somehow very modern, intended for all of us who live now. Valery Gergiev led the premiere with extreme attention to every minute detail, indicating to each soloist the times for their entries and always giving the reader the space to proceed with her narration.

These two evenings, so different from each other, paradoxially showed us how art that relates experiences that might be so different from our own and that are so far apart from each other (the adventures of a monkey in the middle of the 20th century and Biblical passions and human tragedy) speaks to us as powerfully as though they were intended for today. It is as though we have lost our thick skins during 2020 and have suddenly become attuned both to expressions of hatred and love, and to naughty, boisterous world of a traveling monkey in search for happiness. Are not we all eternal wanderers doing the same? Once and again, Mariinsky Theatre and its artistic director Valery Gergiev deserve all the praise for making two feasts of music happen. The evenings were expressing multi-nuanced pain and joy – emotions that were transformed and elevated throgh skilfully organized streams of sounds. Attending these two evenings made one want to connect with others, to breathe and feel again. The atmosphere of unity during these two nights made me think of all other difficult moments the city might have lived through. It is at these moments that one truly begins to appreciate the power of art and music. Hopefully readers from all over the world will also be able to appreciate the concerts at Mariinsky in person, and in the meanwhile receive musical festive greetings from the city!