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‘Shedding the shackles of restraint’

In the top ranks of the new “spiritual” composers, Sofia Gubaidalina is also one of the music makers who has flourished since the demise of the Soviet Union. She is known for a uniquely personal musical vision combined with an overriding spirituality, the sense that music has the power to transform the spirit.

Gubaidalina was born in Chistopol in the Tatar Republic of the Soviet Union in 1931. She studied composition at the Moscow Conservatory.

Her violin concerto, “Offertorium,” helped bring the composer to international attention in the early 1980s. Her scores frequently explore unconventional techniques of sound production, influenced by rare Russian, Caucasian and Asian folk and ritual instruments collected by the Astreia ensemble, of which she is cofounder.

Her compositions did not sit well with Soviet officialdom. After her graduation from the Moscow Conservatory, the renowned composer Dmitri Shostakovich imparted words of advice to her. “He told me ‘I want you to continue along your mistaken path.’

“The big difference between a person in a totalitarian regime and one in a free society is the artistic task,” Gubaidalina said. “In a free society, one feels absolute freedom as a danger. One has to establish one’s own personal regulation to recognize innate potential. But in a totalitarian regime, we have the task of shedding the shackles of restraint in order to realize that potential.”

She articulates her spiritual and artistic vision: “The whole world is threatened by spiritual passivity, an entropy of the soul. … What puts the brakes on that process is the human spirit, and in part, art, and that is a matter for serious music.”

“She is one of the most extraordinary personalities of music today,” said Reinbert De Leeuw, director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood program. “She is a composer going her own path and creating musical worlds that are utterly fascinating.”

Some of her popular works are: “Can You Hear Us, Luigi? Look at the Dance a Simple Wooden Rattle is Performing for You,” “Hour of the Soul,” “Homage to Marina Tsvetayeva” and St. Francis’ prayer, “The Canticle of the Sun.”

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Peteris Vasks was born in Latvia in 1946. He attended the Riga Music Academy. From 1963 to 1974 he was a member of various symphony and chamber orchestras, such as the Lithuanian Philharmonic Orchestra. Latvia was one of the first republics of the former Soviet Union to gain independence in 1991. Vasks has celebrated this freedom and commemorated his people’s suffering in his music.

Vasks includes archaic folkloric elements of Latvian music in his compositions. Most of his works have programmatic titles that refer to nature. Vasks says his interest is in the relation between humans and nature, the beauty of life and the threatening ecological and moral destruction of these values.

Some of his most popular works include “Symphony for Strings,” “Landscape with Birds,” “Musica Adventus” and the “ ‘Distant Light’ Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra.”

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Born in Tbilisi in 1935, Giya Kancheli is the Republic of Georgia’s most distinguished living composer and a leading figure in the world of contemporary music. Kancheli’s scores are deeply spiritual, filled with haunting aural images, varied colors and textures, sharp contrasts and shattering climaxes. His compositions draw inspiration from Georgian folklore.

Like the other composers from the former Soviet republics, freedom brought growing exposure for and recognition of Kancheli’s musical voice, leading to commissions and performances in the United States and in Western Europe. His most popular works are “Liturgy for Viola and Orchestra ‘Mourned by the Wind,’ ” “Magnum Ignotum,” the choral work “I Turned Away in Order Not to See,” and his opera “Music for the Living.”

Dislocated by political and social turbulence in his homeland, Kancheli now resides in Antwerp, Belgium.

-- Rich Heffern

National Catholic Reporter, December 13, 2002