Twenty Years Later, A Schnittke U.S. Premiere

United StatesUnited States Gubaidulina, Kancheli, Schnittke: John Holiday (countertenor), Ken Hamao (violin), Juilliard Orchestra, Anne Manson (conductor). Peter Jay Sharp Theater, The Juilliard School, New York City, 31.1.2014 (BH)

Gubaidulina: Fairy Tale Poem (1971, New York premiere)
Kancheli: And farewell goes out sighing… (1999)
Schnittke: Symphony No. 8 (1993, United States premiere)

For the enticing finale to this year’s Focus! Festival, titled “Alfred Schnittke’s World,” conductor Anne Manson and the Juilliard Orchestra explored rare corners of the late 20th century. Of the three works, only Giya Kancheli’s And farewell goes out sighing… had ever been heard in New York, when Kurt Masur led it—a New York Philharmonic commission from 1999—and it’s worth repeating. I hear a mystic bent in Kancheli’s writing, which is often slow and sustained. For this piece, in addition to a large orchestra, he uses a countertenor—here, the luminous John Holiday, who garnered praise as the title character when the Juilliard Opera presented Handel’s Radamisto last fall—and a solo violin, played by the excellent Ken Hamao.

Kancheli compiled his texts from Shakespeare—four plays and a sonnet; the title is spoken by Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida. As the orchestral texture swells, the voice and violin parts seem like contrapuntal teardrops, adorning the massive string and percussion forces (no winds or brass). Manson elicited passionate work from the ensemble, Hamao infused the violin line with deep emotion, and Holiday’s unblemished tone can only be described as a wonder.

The concert opened with Sofia Gubaidulina’s Fairy Tale Poem, which the composer feels is not one of her stronger works (despite a good deal of audience love around the world). If nothing else, the story that inspired it induces a smile; the main character is not human, but a piece of chalk. I wish the composer had been here to observe the powerfully satisfying reading from Manson and the students, keenly observing the composer’s contrasts. Some episodes might frighten—Gubaidulina has an especially deep affinity for ominous low timbres—though others are more fanciful.

And then came Alfred Schnittke’s vast Eighth Symphony, inexplicably receiving its first United States performance, despite the fact that it was written in 1993—twenty years ago. Schnittke was in precarious health at the time, having experienced a series of strokes. And their presence can be felt; as one friend said, “Is this music a depiction of having the strokes, or of looking back on them?”

Of the five movements, the climax comes in a central Lento, about 20 minutes long, in which the orchestral texture thins out and becomes largely monophonic—a prolonged melodic line carried primarily by the strings. It’s a daring stunt for a large ensemble, especially when audiences are expecting complexity, yet Manson and the orchestra maintained the tension. Flanking the center are two movements marked “Allegro moderato,” filled with brittle, wiry lattices. But the finale makes the most devastating impact, when the full orchestra finally enters. As a series of ascending scales appear, they coalesce into huge cluster chords—a sequence the orchestra let bloom to breathtaking effect—before they suddenly stop. Knowing what happened to the composer, it was hard to suppress an uncomfortable shiver.

 Bruce Hodges