Gubaidulina's sonic alchemy makes for a dream of a show with the BSO

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On a surface level, Sofia Gubaidulina and Sergei Rachmaninoff could seem like a peculiar pair for an all-Russian orchestral program. On one hand you have a master sculptor with sound her matter, delighting in improbable alchemies of color, timbre, and tunings; on the other, there’s the man behind some of the most velvety post-Romantic Romanticism in the orchestral repertoire. But these seemingly opposite poles were more like yin and yang, as the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Andris Nelsons deftly demonstrated on Thursday evening. Within each one, there was a drop of the other, and without that opposing element the music would be incomplete.

Gubaidulina’s sonic alchemy makes for a dream of a show with the BSO
© Winslow Townson Andris Nelsons led the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall Thursday.

Before any of that, Nelsons took the stage to announce the sad news that BSO emeritus conductor Bernard Haitink, 92, had died at his home in London a few hours before the concert. Haitink, formerly the BSO’s principal guest conductor, was a regular fixture at Symphony Hall from his BSO debut in 1971 until 2018, when he made his final podium appearance with an all-Brahms program featuring Emanuel Ax. In memoriam, Nelsons led the BSO strings in a heartfelt Air from Bach’s Suite for Orchestra No. 3.

Gubaidulina’s work has been performed several times at Symphony Hall since the 1980s, but no single BSO conductor has championed the composer in the way that Nelsons has. During the first few months of his tenure he led her violin concerto, “Offertorium,” and 2017 brought the world premiere of her BSO-commissioned Triple Concerto for violin, cello, and bayan, a Russian chromatic button accordion. “The Light of the End,” which Nelsons led Thursday, was also a BSO commission, premiered in 2003. Since then it’s been around the world — notably, the piece nabbed a plum slot on the same program as the annual performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 at the BBC Proms — but it hadn’t returned to Symphony Hall since, and Nelsons and the orchestra gave it the welcome it deserved.

Whenever Ie hear Gubaidulina’s music live, I always end up feeling as if I have just woken up from a very surreal but satisfying dream, full of impossible geometries, winding paths, and wonders that words fail to convey. The piece began in waves, swelling with carefully calibrated dissonances and receding with a gentle sprinkle of chimes and glockenspiel. A wavering minor second appeared and disappeared: a rare concrete landmark in the ever-shifting soundscape. Principal cellist Blaise Déjardin and associate principal horn Richard Sebring squared off with the same melody in slightly offset tuning systems, natural harmonics versus the standard equal-tempered tuning of most of the orchestra.

This was the song of an angelic choir, Old Testament style; think fiery wheels and many eyes, not china figurines. In her mastery of color and character of sound, Gubaidulina succeeds at what so many composers fail to do, and the BSO rose to the piece’s demands and created something sublime and unforgettable.

The composer is in residence at Nelson’s other main gig, with the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig. In celebration of her 90th birthday on Oct. 24, that orchestra and Nelsons released an album today on Deutsche Grammophon featuring three works, including the very first commercial recording of “The Light of the End.”

One wonders why it wasn’t recorded sooner — regardless, you should really try to experience “The Light of the End” live. The difference between Gubaidulina live and Gubaidulina recorded is similar to the feeling of stepping into one of Yayoi Kusama’s infinity rooms versus seeing that room on Instagram — but in Gubaidulina’s case, no one’s going to kick you out after one minute so the next visitor can take a selfie.

It was a tall task to make whatever came next stand out, but Nelsons and the BSO pulled it off with a refreshingly crisp and clear-eyed reading of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3. The podium boogie of years past was drastically dialed back, and a cool grace with well-placed accents emerged in its place.

It’s easy to overdo Rachmaninoff. A certain generation (including myself) may remember first hearing his name in one of the “Anastasia” books by Cambridge’s own Lois Lowry, when the titular teenager’s father laments that she doesn’t appreciate Bach because “Rachmaninoff is schmaltzy.” But Rachmaninoff knew his way around a well-placed dissonance, and the BSO does too: an explosive volley in the horns in the first movement, a moody bass clarinet solo as the final bars approached.

The scherzo in the second movement was almost balletic in its attitude. The trumpets danced a violent jig, the winds scampered through the strings, and when the sweet main theme returned, its richness hummed with delicious catharsis. As any Ashkenazi Jewish cook worth their matzo balls will tell you, a little schmaltz adds a lot of flavor.


At Symphony Hall, Thursday. Repeats Saturday.

A.Z. Madonna can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.

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