On October 24th the grand-dame of Russian contemporary music, Sofia Gubaidulina, celebrates her 80th birthday. In order to commemorate this event, several concerts with her music were scheduled in Amsterdam for her presence – not least of all, the premiere of her new Concerto for Orchestra. Unfortunately, due to illness, she was unable to finish the score, and instead the audience at the Concertgebouw was treated to a replacement piece chosen by chief conductor Mariss Jansons: Das Gastmahl während der Pest (Feast during a Plague), a 2005 piece written by Gubaidulina for the Philhadelphia Orchestra.

Sofia Gubaidulina © Japan Art Association / The Sankei Shimbun
Sofia Gubaidulina
© Japan Art Association / The Sankei Shimbun

Apart from this piece the two other works on the program were Stravinsky’s piano concerto Capriccio and Edgar Varèse’s massive orchestral work Amériques. The Concertgebouw Orchestra had placed all these works under the theme of “Expats” – one undoubtedly suitable to all three composers. Gubaidulina moved from Russia to Germany many years ago, Stravinsky famously lived in Russia, Switzerland, France and the USA and Varèse’s move to the US inspired him to write Amériques.

Das Gastmahl während der Pest is full of juxtapositions. Its title is taken from a short story by Alexander Pushkin depicting a feast, a celebration in a plague-infested town. Gubaidulina was inspired by this image but expanded it and created a musical image of the downside of modern life, the decay of morality and the difference between this bleak world and people who constantly desire to party, to have fun. But when listening to this piece, all the thoughts and background knowledge are not necessary – it speaks for itself. There are some beautiful Shostakovich-like melodies in the string section that are repeated regularly, while the brass and percussion are much more aggressive. One of the most noticeable elements in the music is the drum ‘n’ bass beat that blasts out of the speakers at the Concertgebouw – not in unison with the orchestra, but fighting against it. The juxtaposition Gubaidulina wanted to show hereby becomes extremely clear – perhaps even too obviously and I could not help but wonder what would have happened if the beat had been integrated into the music instead. Despite the fact that there are several confusing parts in this Gubaidulina piece, in general, the music flows and keeps the listener engaged throughout. I definitely hadn’t heard anything like it before, as is often the case with Gubaidulina's pieces and I hope to hear it again.

Das Gastmahl während der Pest is a tough act to follow. But Stravinsky’s piano concerto Capriccio is a fun piece, and pianist Emanuel Ax performed it with ease and enjoyment. The rhythm of the piece was almost vaudeville-like, very exciting and upbeat. The piece was written by Stravinsky with his own skills in mind, so that he would be able to perform it and earn some money, which is perhaps one of the flaws of the piece. One of the essential elements of Gubaidulina’s music is that there are stories behind it – whether they be religious or not – and this Stravinsky piece clearly had a lot less emotional passion behind it. This makes it very easy to listen to but definitely not as exhilarating as Das Gastmahl während der Pest.

Edgar Varèse’s Amériques is a different beast altogether. The Concertgebouw Orchestra had to extend the stage to fit all 137 musicians (including 19 percussionists), a sight not often seen. As someone who is rather fond of loud music of any genre, I was quite keen to hear this piece. Varèse originally had a really difficult time convincing orchestras to play Amériques on account of its size until the Philadelphia Orchestra premiered it in 1926. Shortly after the premiere, Varèse revised it and orchestrated the piece for a much smaller orchestra, probably so that it would become more frequently played. The version played by the Concertgebouw Orcgestra tonight was a reconstruction of the original, made by Varèse’s student, Chou Wen-Chung, for Riccardo Chailly and the orchestra.

In some ways I find it difficult to describe Amériques because it is so impressive. It is reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring; it has similar quirky melodies and seemingly confusing rhythms that start to become clearer, after a few listens. Although melodically not as strong as Rite of Spring, the piece has many strengths. Opening with a flute playing a beautiful calm melody, similar to Debussy, this calm opening is deceptive. Amériques is full of crescendos and almost ear-splitting volume; there is a siren going off every once in a while and a brass section placed beneath the orchestra, which gives literal depth to the piece. I was constantly on the edge of my seat, waiting to hear what the next notes would be, what the piece would build up to, what would happen next. Mariss Jansons expertly guided the Concertgebouw Orchestra into what must have been one of their most exciting performances this season. This was one of those concerts that I wish I could re-live over and over again – partly to understand the works even better, but mostly to be able to enjoy the excitement of having been present at such a beautiful concert.