Journal of the American Viola Society, July 1997
On 17 April Russian violist Yuri Bashmet performed the world premiere of a new viola concerto written for him by Sofia Gubaidulina, on commission from the Chicago Symphony. Afterwards, puffing nervously on a cigarette in an alley behind Orchestra Hall, Bashmet expressed relief even as he critiqued his performance. “It is a difficult piece and I was a little nervous,” he admitted. “But I think it is a masterpiece, like the Schnittke, one of the great viola works of the late twentieth-century.”
The city’s major music critic agreed. John von Rhein of the Chicago Tribune called the concerto, conducted by Kent Nagano, “haunting and challenging…The solo viola broods, cries, whispers and wails in moody glissando-laden soliloquies that interrupt the orchestra’s static, chant-like figures but are hardly affected by them. Soft, slow, austere and almost painfully withdrawn for much of its 30-minute length, the single-movement concerto creates a gripping sense of expectancy. When the viola and orchestra finally unleash their pent-up emotions in a cataclysm of rapidly shifting meters and eerie col legno effects, one feels a tremendous catharsis has taken place, even if the viola’s last thoughts end the piece with a quiet question mark.” Von Rhein called the concerto “a masterpiece of the late twentieth-century – a major addition to the all-too-slim repertory of modern viola concertos.”
Bashmet said he had less practice time with the piece than he would have liked, having received the complete score in January, when he was busy performing on the road. In fact, he had begun studying the solo part in earnest only 10 days before the performance.
The piece calls for full orchestra and a quartet of solo string instruments as well as solo viola. Li-Kuo Chang, the CSO’s assistant principal violist, occupied the viola quartet chair. He called the principal solo part “very demanding and harsh, tailor made for Bashmet.” Similarly the quartet part was “very dramatic and difficult,” calling for lots of contrasting dynamics and glissandi, tremolo and sul ponticello playing. “You cannot really practice it; the notes aren’t hard, but the effect is very difficult,” he said.
Not everyone was entranced with the concerto. During rehearsals a joke circulated among some orchestra members, admittedly not always the most receptive audience to new music, that the piece was the “latest viola joke.” And many Orchestra Hall listeners seemed to have a hard time warming to a long, nontraditional piece featuring the viola performing in such awkward registers.
Gubaidulina, who was in the audience, seemed pleased with the result as she took several rounds of bows. Born in the former Soviet republic of Tatar, Gubaidulina admits to Eastern as well as Western musical influences. Now sixty-six, she started gain an international reputation with the opening of the Soviet musical establishment in the late 1980s. Today she lives near Hamburg, Germany.
Also pleased was CSO’s president, Henry Fogel. “Gubaidulina is a wonderful composer and we had been wanting to commission something from her for years. At the same time Bashmet had been after her to write something for him, so when she told us she was writing a viola piece for him and asked if we would accept it, we thought that was terrific.”
Calling the piece “deeply moving, extremely dramatic and virtuosic,” Fogel pronounced it “a major addition the viola repertoire.”
Bashmet, who plays on a 1758 Testore, continued on with the concerto to Boston, where he played it with Bernard Haitink. He performs 140 times a year, half as soloist and half as the leader of the chamber ensemble Moscow Soloists, which he founded in 1992. “I stay quite busy,” he said laughing, as he finished his cigarette and joined Fogel for a celebratory dinner.