Sofia Gubaidoelina has become a true audience favourite in our country. She is also a welcome guest in broadcasting series. For instance, the AVROTROS Vrijdagconcert presented the Dutch premieres of Glorious Percussion (2011) and O Komm, Heiliger Geist (2016). On Friday 23 March, the first Dutch performance of her Triple concerto for bajan, violin and cello.
The piece is dedicated to Swiss accordionist Elsbeth Moser, who also plays solo with the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. Co-soloists are Latvian violinist Baiba Skride and Dutch cellist Harriet Krijgh. The three of them already signed for the world premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2017. The article below is partly based on a 2011 interview with Gubaidoelina.
I speak to Sofia Gubaidoelina (Chistopol, 1931) in 2011 during the Zutphen Cello Festival. The biennial event opened the night before with her Sieben Worte for cello, bajan and string orchestra. Du moment we shook hands, she ignited in a glowing speech about the great performance and beautiful venue.
This drive is characteristic: even in previous interviews, Gubaidoelina never succumbed to smalltalk. For that, her time is too precious and her mission too important. Profound art must be made to counterbalance the flattening tendencies in our society. It is her sacred duty to give voice to the spiritual element.
Music in basement circuit
The Tatar-Russian describes how difficult the situation was for independent-thinking artists in the Soviet Union. 'Everything was politically motivated. If you refused to sing about the regime in socialist-realist style, it was almost impossible to survive. You got no performances, no money, nothing.
But I could not write eulogies: we lived in a completely immoral society. Of necessity, my music was performed by brave musicians on the so-called basement circuit. They were my knights in shining armour. I am eternally grateful to them: without a musician no music, after all.'
Doors and windows open
Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1992, Gubaidoelina moved to Appen, a village near Hamburg. Excitedly, she recalls how decisive this was for her. 'I was already sixty, my life was largely over, but at last I could freely compose whatever I wanted. All the doors opened.
In Russia everything was stuffy, but now I could easily interact with musicians, critics and the public. That interaction is essential for an artist. For the first time, I could really set myself large-scale goals that were also realised; my production increased considerably.'
A house with a tree
Yet her style has hardly changed in the West. 'The outside world does not influence my way of composing that much, because I listen to my inner voice,' Gubaidoelina explains. 'I could hear it better in Appen, by the way, because I got a much more favourable contact with nature. It is a hamlet with only two streets.'
'There is a tree in front of my house and I have a little garden, so am literally at nature. In Moscow, I was in a small flat surrounded by houses and factories; everything was bathed in light at night. I was always dreaming of the outdoors.'
But as a child, didn't she take days-long walks with her father across the steppes of Tatarstan? 'Yes, he was a surveyor and I was sometimes allowed to come along on one of his business trips. But we lived in Kazan, as industrial an area as Moscow. The wry thing is that he often had to survey land where an airport was being built or something. So I enjoyed landscapes that disappeared shortly afterwards.'
I suggest she could have moved to a village outside Moscow if she had such a need for greenery. Horrified, she looks at me. 'That was perilous, in the countryside there was terrible crime! Moscow was considerably safer. In the beginning, I sometimes went to one of the city parks, but there too, crime was rising sharply. That's why I stayed indoors as much as possible during the last decade of Soviet rule. That I now have a house with a garden and a tree is Paradise for me.'
Does she perhaps feel German rather than Russian or Tatar these days? Intrusively, she looks at me. 'Nationality matters little these days. People all over the world interact with each other through the internet and we are losing our national character. You can no longer categorise by nationality or race, as we used to do.'
'In the current zeitgeist, other criteria apply, such as: honesty is naive, high art is naive. There is a gap between intelligent people and the majority of society, which is hostile to the intelligentsia and the arts. Almost verging on militaristic. The Spasskultur does force artists to lose out, but we must continue to resist the flattening.'
Whether this will succeed, Gubaidoelina doubts. 'I see a new human being emerging, who no longer know what it is to have real contact, as we did during this conversation. They sit at the computer all day and react to the outside world like machines. I see that as a great danger for the future: life is becoming empty, flat and one-dimensional, all diversity is disappearing.'
You certainly cannot call her own music one-dimensional and flat; it always has a strong spiritual charge. Thereby, Gubaidoelina is a true magician of sound, whose musical imagination does not fade even in old age. This is once again evident in the Triple Concerto for bayan, violin and cello, completed in 2017.
The idea for this large-scale orchestral work came from Elsbeth Moser, a great advocate of her music. In 1991, Gubaidoelina wrote Silenzio for bayan, violin and cello for her. Struck by the beautiful interaction between the Russian button accordion and Western string instruments, Moser asked her for a triple concerto.
Dark orchestral sound
Notable in this approximately half-hour-long concerto is the predominantly low register of the orchestral instruments. It opens with a chromatic tone cluster of the bajan, starting on a low E and rising to almost an octave higher E-flat. The cello, too, plays an ascending line, with the intervals becoming progressively smaller in height.
The violin starts on the lowest string and also moves up the pitch. This sets the concerto in motion. It is mainly composed of short motifs, which Gubaidoelina nevertheless forges into a convincing unity. Partly thanks to a subtle use of dynamics - sometimes swelling to hurricane force.
The two solo strings play sensuously interlocking lines, embedded in colourful chords of the bajan and dark orchestral sounds. Instruments like double bassoon, tuba, trombones and double basses ideally complement the bayan's sonorous low register. Beautiful too are the lines of a horn rising from the depths. Downright impressive is the dull whooshing sound of a big drum, which at the same time produces a light rattle. Is it strung with steel strings, like a snare drum in pop music?
We will hear on Friday.
In addition to Gubaidoelina's Triple Concerto, the RFO plays Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony. More info and tickets here.
I made a report with the three soloists for the live broadcast on Radio 4, You can listen to it here.
My conversation with Elsbeth Moser can be heard on YouTube.