Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Reviews

S.F. Symphony Review: Masur, Gubaidulina make out-of-this-world music in Davies Hall

Review of the San Francisco Symphony Performance of February 18, 2009 in the Oakland Tribune and other papers of the Alameda Newspaper Group under the headline above.

By Cheryl North

The sounds coming from the stage during the first piece on the San Francisco Symphony's Wednesday night program at Davies Symphony Hall were like none I've heard before. They were downright otherworldly.

The closest comparison I can conjure is perhaps background music for a wild, far-out science fiction film — or, maybe a musical score for a flick about a squadron of maddened ghosts dive-bombing the world.

The piece agitating my eardrums was the Russian-born composer Sofia Gubaidulina's 25 minute, single-movement piece, The Light of the End, composed in 2003.

Conducted, and indeed, championed, by the legendary Kurt Masur, the performance was a tour-de-force testament to the virtuosity and the steely nerves of the musicians in our San Francisco Symphony.

Gubaidulina's creation included a steady descending half-tone figure (ostinato) flashing luminously from an amazing combination of tintinnabulating, bell-like percussion instruments amid a cadre of violins providing recurrent whirlwind effects via slides (glissandi) up and down their strings. Tubas and trombones intoned warnings that sounded like ominous groans from the molten center of the earth.

This amazing sound mélange was soon followed by a sonorously beautiful cello passage performed in our usual ear-friendly "tempered" tuning — until said cellos were joined in eerie duet by French horns playing in the alarmingly unnatural-sounding "natural overtone" tuning method.

In translated comments during the preconcert lecture at Davies Hall, the slight, slim 77-year-old Gubaidulina herself allowed that this section would indeed be a little painful: "Such pain occurs in my music, as it also does in life itself as we try to juxtapose the natural with the artificial in life."

The wonder of the whole concert, however, was conductor Kurt Masur. At age 81, after a bout of heart problems a few years back, the tall, regal conductor with the ramrod-straight posture of a military general, energetically, insightfully choreographed all the intricacies of Gubaidulina's piece, and then, by memory, proceeded through all 70 challenging minutes of Anton Bruckner's 1874 "Romantic" Symphony No. 4.

The S.F. Symphony's brass section played with all the heroic glory the piece demands. Yet, amid all this grandeur, Masur also sculpted the work's small, cell-like passages, as well as its many lengthy, almost improvisatory, pipe-organ-like sections, into cohesive, moving music. Under his skilled hands, the whole monumental work was molded into a beautifully nuanced, deeply affirmative epiphany — something much needed in our times.

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