The history of serious progressive music in the Soviet Union is only now coming
into focus. It’s a history of oppression, of composers harrassed by official
governmental forces, denied access to music from the West, and commanded to
straitjacket their own compositions to fit the needs of the state. It is also
the story of a few brave composers working virtually in secret, smuggling
forbidden scores in and out of the country, an avant-garde underground.
This past weekend several departments at U.S.C. combined to present a symposium
on “forbidden” Soviet art, and the climactic event occurred at the Schoenberg
Institute on Saturday night: a fascinating concert of Soviet avant-garde music
from the 1920s to the present. The performers were members of Continuum, the
New York-based new-music organization led by by Joel Sachs and Cheryl Seltzer.
It’s only recently, as Sachs explained in a pre-concert talk, that Soviet
composers have gained access to the masterworks of their own time. Like beggars
at a banquet, Sachs said, they eagerly assimilated 75 years’ worth of outside
influence, and some of their new music teems with the results of this new
That was certainly the case, on Saturday’s program, with a wildly eclectic,
fearsomely energetic work by Alfred Schnittke for violin and piano, subtitled
“Quasi una Sonata,” in which both instruments seemed bent on tearing huge
holes in the atmosphere with the passion of their outcries. A Sonata for
clarinet alone by Elena Firsova seemed motivated by the same intentions; in no
more than ten minutes it explored with furious skill the full range of the
instrument’s possibilities, and a few impossibilities as well.
Two expansive vocal works were among the evening’s high points. “Pain and
Silence,” Edison Denisov’s settings of lines from Osip Mandelstamm, was the
one work that could, from any standpoint, be thought of as beautiful; Ukranian
composer Leonid Hrabovsky’s {cq} “Kogda,” commissioned by Continuum, set some
tiny poems of Velimir Khlebnikov (author of the mystical “Zangesi,” produced
several years ago at MOCA) into a background full of such avant-garde toys as a
thunder sheet and a brake drum banged upon with a hammer.
Starting off the program was some short pieces from Soviet music’s early days:
some dreary piano works and songs by Nicolay Roslavets and Alexander Mosolov —
the latter best known for his piece of orchestrated social realism, “The Steel
Foundry.” Also included was a 1949 Trio by Galina Ustvolskaya, a dry-point but
well-crafted work by a Soviet iconoclast who was exploring her own brand of
Western-style dissonance at a time when she might have been shot for doing
Performances couldn’t have been better, with Sachs and Seltzer sharing the
burdens at the piano, the stalwart mezzo-soprano Ellen Lang, violinist Mia Wu
and clarinetist Nathan Williams. New York’s new-music audience is notoriously
fickle, but their support of Continuum over 25 years suggests that they do know
quality when they hear it. So did the cheering, capacity crowd at Schoenberg
Institute, for a most worthy event.