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Russian Nostalgia and Hope


The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Stir concert series on the first Thursday of every month engages in experimental art forms, particularly in digital media and pioneering musical genres. This Thursday saw A Far Cry’s “Lady Russia.” The ensemble’s violinist Jae Cosmos Lee noted that Sophia Gubaidulina’s music held the same poignant attraction for him as the final movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony or the opening of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. To him, there is a clear pairing between Gubaidulina and the indie-rock musician Olga Bell, who recently released her first album Krai.

This pairing is not an obvious to everyone: born 1931, Gubaidulina studied composition in Kazan and Moscow where she was strongly influenced by Shostakovich and Webern; the former personally encouraged her work after she was rebuked by the Soviet Union for “irresponsible music”. After being blacklisted in Russia in the 1990’s Gubaidulina moved to Hamburg, where she currently resides. The composer’s Offertorium was performed by the BSO in its 2014-2015 season; over the past year, her music has been performed locally by both the International Chamber Ensemble and Radius Ensemble.

Brooklyn-based Olga Bell, born in Moscow in 1983, more than a half-century later than Gubaidulina, grew up in Alaska, where she studied classical piano and graduated from NEC in piano and electronic music before moving to New York to pursue electronic composition and songwriting. Bell has performed with indie rock groups Chairlift and Dirty Projectors internationally, as well as making appearances on the Tonight Show with David Letterman and Late Night with Conan O’Brien.

Despite their seemingly monumental differences in biography, however, the two composers seem to find striking coherence in their pained memories of Russia. Gubaidulina’s Fachwerk, a concerto for bayan (Russian chromatic button accordion), percussion, and strings, was composed in 2009, and re-worked in 2011. The work is inspired by Fachwerk architecture—a 19th-century German technique in which the supporting timber frame of a building is visible in the completed structure. As such, the accordion in the concerto is at once the focus of the work, while providing the overall soundscape for the entire piece–the audible frame around which the work is built. Gubaidulina’s concerto is certainly harmonically accessible, at times even surprisingly tonal. Structurally, however, the music arrives in monumental walls of sound that coalesce and grow around the core melodies of the bayan, all harnessed by a loose rhythmic compulsion through the piece.

Calderwood Hall proved strikingly effective for this Fachwerk. From the the ground floor, the sheer accumulation of sound was both awe-inspiring and chilling. Members of the ensemble stood in a semi-circle facing Julien Labro, seated with the bayan. The conductorless ensemble negotiated Gubaidulina’s significant score with a natural fluency that provided a compelling read of the work. Labro’s bayan reveled in the morass of orchestral and percussive textures–his deep understanding and engagement Fachwerk resulted in beautifully shaped melodic lines. Yet Fachwerk doesn’t stay close to the marmoreal soundscape: frequently the accordion descends into a shocking basal gasp—a motive portrayed by Labro as awe-inspiring, almost animal, heaving and weeping. And why not this aching sorrow? Fachwerk, at its core, is expression of yearning by a Russian exile in Germany writing a concerto for a Russian folk instrument using a German architectural metaphor.

Julien Labro (file photo)
Julien Labro (file photo)

Olga Bell’s subsequent Krai (Край), expressed a less visceral, albeit no less genuine longing. Half song-cycle, half indie rock album, Krai refers to the Russian word for edge, limit, frontier, or hinterland: each of the nine songs is dedicated to a different Russian federal subject (Krasnodar, Altai, Perm, Stavropol, Krasnoyarsk, Primorsky, Zabaikalsky, Khabarovsk, and Kamchatka), taking their Russian texts from either traditional sources or from original poetry composed by Olga Bell and Marina Bell. Musically, these songs at times take the form of ballades, lullabyes, or traditional hymns—love-letters to a bygone time and peoples. Frequently, however, the music boils over into harsh critique, at one point turning into a call-to-arms against the Czar; in another, the chorus to another song pleads “Russia, Mother Russia, Russian Motherland!/ Much grief, Russia, much need have you taken on.”

Drummer Jason Nazary and pianist Hannah Shields joined Far Cry for this premiere of the orchestration of the 2014 album, which sets the six voices for string orchestra and percussion. The rich orchestral textures, especially in the warm lower strings, evoked an idiom not unfamiliar for indie rock, but one which certainly extended this language to harmonically disorienting territory. Though this seems hardly a familiar genre for Far Cry, the ensemble nevertheless approached Krai with an ease and comfort that thoroughly engaged the music and subject matters. Bell’s performance in these was unpretentious yet deeply felt. Thursday evening’s collaboration with Far Cry painted Bell’s Russia with both nostalgia and hope.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Stir series continues on April 7th with saxophonists Neil Leonard and Rudresh Mahanthappa with Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons.

Among his professional singing experiences, Sudeep Agarwala has performed with many local choruses.

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