I went to a pretty remarkable concert last night. The Yale Schola Cantorum performed Sofia Gubaidulina’s Sonnengesang: The Canticle of the Sun, a sprawling setting of St. Francis of Assisi’s text for chorus, percussion, and cello soloist (the aforementioned Hannah Collins). After reading Matt Barnson’s excellent program notes during the interval, I was fairly certain I was going to hate the piece, not least of all because I’d heard it was 40 minutes long, and also about some religious mumble-jumble. ("In each of my works I experience the Eucharist as fantasy"? Please, spare us.) Then they brought the tuned water-goblets out on stage, and I really expected the worst.
Actually, though, I shouldn’t have worried, because we’re talking about Simon Carrington here (he’s the conductor). He’s a man of taste. You should see the convertible he sometimes drives. It was because of Simon that I got to play in Dallapiccola’s Canti di Prigionia a few years back—what a hair-raising piece.
Canticle of the Sun was also hair-raising, in a completely different, much more ecstatic sort of way. The cellists has to act as a sort of protagonist figure, a wanderer in search of some sort of religious salvation—which I understand was achieved, to judge by the awesome F-sharp major closing minutes. Over the course of the piece, Hannah had to de-tune her C string down to A flat, then back up again, get up and play a gong, superball a bass drum (and let me just say, she super-balled it), and go bow a flexatone in the chorus’s face. There’s a really thin line here between drama and cheesiness (the bad kind, not the Alex kind)—but I was not, at any point, embarrassed for the sake of anyone onstage, so I think that means everything was just fine.
There were some real musical high points, too. The whole language was very fresh-sounding, especially in the more static sections (at one particularly engrossing point, the percussionists had to play their water-glasses for about five minutes straight, without pausing to re-wet their fingers. How did they do it??) I was also really intrigued by the large-scale gestures in the music—for instance, the cello’s obviously symbolic and incredibly protracted ascent from low A-flat to high god-knows-what toward the end of the piece, and how the opening solo introduces the chorus with a jaunty glissando. There were, of course, some sections where my mind wandered, but then, I get distracted during Webern’s Fünf Orchesterstücke, so perhaps I’m not the best judge.
Simon warned all of us beforehand that there was a great deal of silence in the piece, and please not to cough, shuffle our program, call our mother, etc. and I think it made the audience slightly on edge. There was definitely more coughing as a result. Also, one unfortunate chorister forgot to silence his ringer, and it went off, painfully, in his tuxedo pocket. I don’t think it would have been so painful if everyone weren’t paying such close attention to the music, so I guess the jolt in my stomach was a good sign.