Masters Hone their Craft at Columbia’s Own Miller Theatre

Just beside the gates at 116th Street and Broadway, right here on Columbia’s campus, is one of New York City’s most highly regarded, award-winning music venues. Maybe you’ve visited with your Music Hum class; supported your friends in the CU Orchestra, Jazz Ensembles, or Ballet Collaborative; or taken advantage of $7 CU student tickets to a jazz or Composer Portraits concert. Or maybe, like many students at Columbia, you’re not quite sure what goes on every day in the nearly 700-seat theater next door. Allow me to pull back the curtain on what’s been happening this week.

In preparation for Saturday’s Composer Portrait of Sofia Gubaidulina, members of New York’s own International Contemporary Ensemble took the stage on Monday for their first rehearsal in the venue. Led by conductor Christian Knapp, the group lost no time in filling the space with Gubaidulina’s remarkably intricate orchestrations.

Though the ICE players are all masterful musicians, rehearsals happen for a reason.  After practicing their parts independently, the musicians have only five days of group rehearsal to put these pieces together. Today, Knapp helps the players work through a particularly complex part in the score. At one point, polyphonic (more than one melodic line) and polyrhythmic (different rhythms for different voices) elements combine to create an overall sensation of cacophony that is both decisively chaotic and surprisingly organized. The effect is reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps — in both pieces, a strong ostinato pulse from the lower-voiced instruments is offset by a mélange of sounds and melodies coming from the mid- and upper-range instruments.

While working through some of the most problematic parts of the piece is obviously an important part of group rehearsal, Knapp also makes sure to consider the piece holistically. He gives the players a few images to invoke, hoping it will help them embody Gubaidulina’s artistic intentions. One such image was that of an Orthodox chorus, and for Gubaidulina’s music, it’s a particularly compelling one. As a practitioner of Russian Orthodoxy, Gubaidulina’s scores often have an overarching feeling that is both mystical and spiritually profound. Bassoonist Rebekah Heller, who will be performing the solo in Gubaidulina’s Concerto for bassoon and low strings, describes Gubaidulina’s work as “so tangibly dark, you can feel her questions and her angst.” As Knapp conducts, he reminds the musicians of this feeling, and encourages them to remember the composer’s influences in their interpretations of her work.

Watching Knapp conduct, it becomes clear he is a confident leader. But ICE is so full of brilliantly talented musicians the rehearsal is more collaborative than expected. The musicians give each other notes and suggestions, and sometimes ask Knapp to make adjustments to his conducting. Critiques are received with trust and appreciation — in a room full of masters, everyone knows best. According to Heller, cross-talking is one of the benefits of playing in a chamber ensemble. In a larger orchestra, the conductor is in charge; for the members of ICE, collaboration is the key.

ICE will be performing three of Gubaidulina’s works this weekend, but I spoke with Heller specifically about the bassoon concerto. The piece is rarely performed, and though she has admired the concerto for fifteen years, this will be her first opportunity to perform it. Her position in the piece is unique — as the featured soloist, she has a definite leadership role, but the impact of the work is in the interaction between the ensemble, the conductor, and herself. As Heller described it, Gubaidulina’s music is “more about voices coming together” than individual parts standing out — an appropriate analysis of the concerto, and of the work of ICE on the whole.


Composer Portrait performance will take place on Saturday, February 9th, at 8:00pm in Miller Theatre. Tickets for Columbia/Barnard students are only $7, and can be purchased at the Miller Box Office on 116th and Broadway. To learn more about this concert, or to watch a preview of the Sofia Gubaidulina Composer Portrait, please visit the Miller Theatre website.

Katherine Bergstrom CC’14

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