Pittsburgh Symphony premieres new piece

This weekend, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra was joined by superstar violinist Joshua Bell in Brahms’ violin concerto. High school girls, their hearts beating heavily, came in droves to see (not perhaps as much to hear) Bell play and meet him after the concert. But before hearing Bell play during the second half of the concert, the audience was subjected to, nay, tricked into, listening to... modern music!

The PSO premiered Sofia Gubaidulina’s Feast During a Plague, which had been commissioned by both the PSO and the Philadelphia Orchestra; Sir Simon Rattle conducted the Philadelphia premiere last year. Gubaidulina, 75, had planned to come to the Pittsburgh performance, but was unable to do so after the death of her husband.

Gubaidulina was born in 1931 in the Tatar Republic, still a part of the Soviet Union. She was very interested in folk music and co-founded the Astreia ensemble. She has written music for the bayan, a Russian accordion. Although Gubaidulina is very well known in Russia and Europe, she is not as well known in the United States. She is well represented by recordings: Gergiev, Dutoit (with the Boston Symphony Orchestra), Kremer, Rostropovich, and the Kronos Quartet have all performed and recorded her music.

Gubaidulina’s piece is a prime example of modern music. The piece was very dissonant at times, used many modern techniques of playing instruments, and had a large arsenal of percussion. Gubaidulina is a master of orchestration; she often uses a huge orchestra to produce a dizzying palette of colors.

Gubaidulina drew her inspiration from one of Pushkin’s 1830 Little Tragedies, called A Feast During the Plague. Pushkin in turn drew inspiration from an 1816 poem by John Wilson, “The City of the Plague.” Pushkin’s poem is rich in imagery, illustrating the insanity of celebrating a feast during a plague that is ripping apart a city.

Gubaidulina’s piece is a metaphor for, as she has said, “the calamity overtaking mankind, the lowering of the moral level of society,” and many people’s indifference to it. Like Pushkin and Wilson, Gubaidulina was able to create imagery that is both evocative and disturbing.

One of the most interesting parts of the 25-minute work occurred near the middle. The orchestra was playing quietly and pensively when, from out of nowhere, a selection of techno music started blasting, covering up the orchestra for a few seconds. The orchestra continued, building up, and the techno music returned in spurts.

The use of techno music was quite an interruption. It was a powerful tactic, especially for young people who have danced to similar music in clubs and at parties and connected with it before. Gubaidulina’s juxtaposition of very serious music and heavy techno music comments on how perverse it might be to dance and party during a plague.

Gubaidulina’s piece, though very modern in its techniques, conveyed strong emotions. Sitting in a comfortable seat in Heinz Hall, the music very strongly sounds like a warning ­— one could feel its proximity, as if it were approaching from just beyond the horizon.

Near the end of the piece, the loudest and most intense climax ends suddenly, leaving just strings playing sustained notes very quietly. Then, various drums brutally hammer out a rhythmic motif that had appeared earlier in the piece.

The PSO often plays modern music and commissions composers to write new music. Premieres are special, one-of-a-kind experiences, and it is a privilege to be a member of the first audience to hear a new work.