Discovering a Russian recluse in Californiamain
Christopher Russell is about to perform the scarcely-heard fifth symphony by the intriguing Leningrad hermit, Galina Ustvolskaya. Chris tells Slipped Disc how this came about:
When California began its lockdown from the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, I set myself a personal artistic project to explore some new orchestral repertoire. As a conductor, I’m always on the hunt to discover something new and/or shine a light on some lesser-known music that I believe needs to be heard. I decided my project would be symphony cycles by composers whose complete set I’d not heard before. By the end of the summer, I’d listened to the cycles of 18 different composers totaling 122 symphonies. They included the cycles by Malcolm Arnold, Mozart Camargo Guarnieri, Louise Farrenc, William Grant Still, and even the 10 symphonies by Chinese composer Zhu Jian’er.
One symphony cycle I decided to listen to was of the Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006). I’d come across her name only in the last ten years or so and knew she had a bit of a cult following. But that’s about it.
Ustvolskaya wrote five symphonies ranging from about eight to 25 minutes. They can all be heard in about 75 minutes. All five have some sort of spoken or sung text with Nos. 2-5 based on religious themes. Ustvolskaya’s music often explored Christianity and she talked about its importance in her life although, by her own admission, she pretty much never set foot inside of a church.
She once said “There is no link whatsoever between my music and that of any other composer whatsoever, living or dead”. At first, I thought this was a fairly arrogant thing to say but the more I explored her music, the more I came to realize that this was an accurate statement. Her unique instrumental combinations, strange harmonies, and repeated blocks of sound make for a unique listening experience. It quickly drew me in.
I’m an Associate Professor and the orchestra conductor at Azusa Pacific University, near Los Angeles. With the pandemic still raging through the summer, we followed most universities in California and moved our fall semester completely online. Obviously, this made for wild challenges in trying to do orchestra online via Zoom where even getting two people to play together is pretty much impossible. With my fall concert plans thrown out the window, I had to come up with some repertoire alternatives that focused on recording projects. I decided it was best and most manageable to divide the full orchestra into different-sized chamber orchestras. Coming off of my summer listening project, Ustvolskaya’s music came to mind as being both worth doing and doable in our new circumstances. Her Symphony No.5 “Amen” seemed a perfect fit.
The symphony is scored for only five instruments: oboe, trumpet, tuba, violin, and wooden cube. It also includes an actor who recites the Lord’s Prayer. It will be in English, not the original Russian, as Ustvolskaya said it can be done in the language of the performers.
Ustvolskaya also left specific instructions in the score for building the wooden cube. Her official website is very specific that she wanted this instrument to be a cube, not some coffin-shaped object as seen in other performances. Since most places don’t have wooden cubes built to her exact specifications lying around, the Operations Manager at our School of Music set out to construct one. I tried our newly-completed cube the other day and it sounds terrific. I am smiling under my mask.
I’ve worked with all the players on the symphony and they are also taken with Ustvolskaya’s singular sound world. We’re in the process of recording it with a goal of releasing the video next month.
There’s something completely compelling about this music. It doesn’t unfold the way a symphony is “supposed to”. It makes complete sense when you realize this is one person pouring out their heart to God. Prayers don’t typically follow sonata form. Thus, you’re taken on this personal and powerfully unique listening experience.