Works of Dark and Light By Russian Composers
Review by James R. Oestreich published 22 February 1994 in The New York Times
For at least half a century, music critics in New York have fretted that the city’s musical institutions partake too little of its intellectual life. Recent attempts to revive a moribund musical world have included several brainy jolts administered with mixed success by the American Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Leon Botstein. But the program Mr. Botstein presented on Friday evening at Avery Fisher Hall, a fascinating juxtaposition of works by Alfred Schnittke and Sofia Gubaidulina, drew impetus from a less likely source, the long-maligned New York Philharmonic.
Virgil Thomson dismissed the Philharmonic as irrelevant to the city’s intellectual life in 1940, and listeners in the 80’s had reason to wonder whether the orchestra was even a factor in the city’s musical life. But Kurt Masur has given a more thoughtful cast to programming and audience-building, and the Philharmonic’s recent Composer Week, devoted to Mr. Schnittke, set a broader agenda in and around the city, spawning an informal festival. The American Symphony program was merely the latest in a remarkable outpouring of performances and discussions of Mr. Schnittke’s music and that of other former Soviet composers.
If “merely” is the word for two such imposing creations. The Schnittke entry was “Seid Nuchtern und Wachet” (“Be Sober and Watchful”), a cantata from 1983 on the Faust story, or rather its sorry conclusion. Perhaps taking his cue from Thomas Mann’s novel “Doctor Faustus,” Mr. Schnittke uses a folk-based German text from 1587, published by Johann Shpiece, in which stern moralizing is buttressed by a lurid account of Faust’s fate. (“. . . The chamber was splattered with blood./His brain was clinging to the wall,/Because the devil had flung him/From one wall to the other.”)
Mr. Schnittke’s compelling work (since expanded into an opera) begins as a parody Passion, with tenor narrator, baritone protagonist and countertenor tempter. But it takes a bizarre turn in the grisly denouement, when a husky, vampish mezzo-soprano picks up the tale to a grim and relentless tango beat.
Joyce Castle, crooning her way through the aisles with a hand-held microphone, delivered the knockout blow to harrowing effect. Michael Hayes was an earnest narrator, Jan Opalach an affecting Faust, Derek Lee Ragin an unearthly beguiler. The Concert Chorale of New York joined the orchestra, and Mr. Botstein kept a tight rein on the sprawling affair.
Miss Gubaidulina’s “Allelujia,” too, offered an extramusical conceit, a light show, but it was overshadowed not only by the grandly theatrical gesture at the heart of the Schnittke but also by Miss Gubaidulina’s powerful score. Or at least powerful music, for the use of colored lights is fully specified in the score and meant to be integral to the work.
Be that as it may, earlier performances have done without lights, and even this lighted premiere was termed experimental by the composer in a preconcert discussion. The notion, evidently, is to enhance the mystic character of the quasi-religious text with ambient lighting of varying hues and intensities. The American Symphony, unable to command and transform the hall for the purpose, gamely constructed a “color organ,” a system of spotlights onstage, activated by a keyboard.
The results were anticlimactic and distracting. Until Miss Gubaidulina’s conception can be realized in full (and maybe even then), the music is better heard neat.