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The music of Galina Ustvolskaya’s impressive 5th symphony “Amen” conquers the USA

Together with members of his university orchestra, Christopher Russell, conductor and professor at Azusa Pacific University, intends to perform the 5th symphony “Amen” for speaker, violin, oboe, trumpet, tuba and percussion by the mesmerizing Petersburg composer Galina Ustvolskaya. This work was last heard in the USA on 19 January 1991 in New York in a performance by the Continuum ensemble.  

In an article published on the online platform Slipped Disc, Russell tells how it came about: 

“When California was hit by the COVID 19 pandemic last spring, I set out on a personal artistic project to explore new orchestral repertoire. As a conductor, I am always looking for something new and/or music that I believe needs to be heard. I decided that my project should involve symphony cycles by composers that I had not heard in full before. By the end of the summer I had listened to cycles by 18 different composers, numbering in total, 122 symphonies.  

One symphony cycle that particularly aroused my interest was by Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006). I had only come across her name over the last ten years and was aware of her cult following. But that was about it. 

Ustvolskaya wrote five symphonies with playing times of 8 to 25 minutes. These works can be heard together over a period of about 75 minutes. All five works refer to religious themes. Ustvolskaya often deals with Christian thinking in her music. She spoke a great deal of the importance of faith in her life, although admitting she has hardly ever set foot in a church. 

She once said: “There is no connection whatsoever between my music and that of another composer, whether living or dead”. At first I thought this was a somewhat arrogant attitude, but the more I studied her music, the more I realised that her statement was accurate. Ustvolskaya’s unique combinations of instruments, her strange harmonies and repetitive sound blocks create a unique listening experience that fascinated me quite quickly. 

I am an associate professor and orchestra leader at Azusa Pacific University near Los Angeles. As the pandemic persisted throughout the summer of 2020, most universities in California switched completely to online teaching in the fall semester. That was a big challenge, because it barely functions if two people are playing together. When my plans for the fall concerts evaporated, I had to come up with some repertoire alternatives that focused on recording projects. I decided that the most practical solution would be to divide the whole orchestra into chamber orchestras of different sizes. Upon returning to my summer listening project, Ustvolskaya's music came to mind. Given the new circumstances, it seemed both worthwhile and feasible. The Symphony No. 5 “Amen” appeared to fit the bill perfectly. 

The symphony is played by only five instruments: oboe, trumpet, tuba, violin and wooden dice. In addition an actor recites the ‘Our Father’. We perform it in English, not Russian. 

Ustvolskaya also left specific instructions in the score for the construction of the wooden cube. She wanted this instrument to be a cube, not a coffin-shaped object as appears in many other performances. As wooden cubes made according to her exact specifications exist in very few places, the production manager of our music department set about building one. I tried our newly completed cube the other day, and it sounds great: it makes me smile under my mask. 

I have worked with all the musicians on the symphony, and they too are taken by Ustvolskaya’s unique world of sound. We are now in the process of recording the symphony with the aim of releasing the video next month. 

This music has something absolutely compelling. It does not unfold in the way a symphony is usually ‘meant to’ unfold. It is enough to know that this music comes from a person who pours her heart out before God. Prayers do not normally follow the sonata form. Every listener will be thrilled by this very personal and extremely unique listening experience”.

Symphony No. 5 “Amen” (1989/90) is Ustvolskaya's last composition. Christian faith takes a central role in the composer’s work. Save for the 1st symphony, which unlike the other contributions to this genre, has been conceived for a large orchestra, all symphonies are titled with biblical quotations or terms. The musical language of this work is sparse. It seems as if the composer wishes to limit her statement to a concentrate. From her own statements it can be seen that she constantly thinks in symphonic forms, even though the structure, playing time and instrumentation of her compositions indicate the opposite. 

An almost sober-clear structure also characterises the 5th Symphony, in the course of which homophonic passages of violin, oboe, trumpet, tuba and percussion accompany a solo part reciting the Lord's Prayer. The urgency of the musical means of expression is further enhanced by the repetition of selected text passages. The reduction of the means, so driven to the extreme, and unparalleled in the genre of symphony, leads to a distillation of Galina Ustvolskaya’s Christian-philosophical world of thought, which can be called almost archaic for its musical interpretation and realisation.

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