New York Times
The dogged originality and eruptive energy encountered in the music of Galina Ustvolskaya, a Soviet-era Russian composer, are undeniable. Factor in the eccentricity and ego of her public pronouncements, as well as the spiritual streak that runs through her slender output, and you have the stuff of a formidable cult following. But so severe and uncompromising are the products of Ustvolskaya’s mature style that the Miller Theater, where the music of Iannis Xenakis and Elliott Carter draws capacity crowds, appeared to be just over half full for a Composer Portraits concert presented by the admirable Fifth House Ensemble of Chicago on Saturday night.
What we know of Ustvolskaya, who died in 2006, amounts to relatively little. She studied briefly with Shostakovich, who claimed to have learned more from her than he taught her. (Their relationship evidently soured after she rejected his marriage proposal.) Ustvolskaya’s style came closest to that of her mentor in her 1949 Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano. Shostakovich, who quoted the trio in two of his works, adopted its melancholy sparseness in full years later.
In the Octet (1949-50) and the Piano Sonata No. 4 (1957), you hear affinities with works by Stravinsky and Messiaen, though Ustvolskaya insisted that her music bore no trace of external influence. Hints of things to come were evident in the octet’s unorthodox scoring (two oboes, four violins, piano and timpani) and its technical demands (at one point the timpanist uses four mallets to whack dull thumps on four drums simultaneously).
The rest of the program drew from the radical works Ustvolskaya produced from the 1970s on. Adam Marks, an excellent pianist who provided a center of gravity throughout the concert, mustered titanic force for the crashing cluster chords of the Piano Sonata No. 6 (1988).
If religious subtitles conditioned expectations toward two remaining works, stark themes and obsessive rhythms dispelled any notion of conventional piety. In the Composition No. 3, “Benedictus Qui Venit” (1974-75), a flute quartet plays gaseous disharmonies against the plodding advance of piano and four galumphing bassoons. Hearing it, you could imagine a ghoulish pantomime involving free spirits ground down under remorseless boot heels.
Composition No. 2, “Dies Irae” (1972-73), is equally bleak: eight double basses extend or rebut caustic ruminations on piano, as a percussionist hammers on a hollow wooden cube as if enacting the blows of an angry god.
As you contemplate works awash in such sustained brutality, the idea of appeal seems alien. But the Fifth House performers, augmented by players from the Yale School of Music, played with enough conviction, authority and finesse to bring out the defiant dignity and nobility in Ustvolskaya’s truculent creations.
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