The Symphonic Juncture

A [Symphonist]: "The one who is not afraid to raise the primal force."

- Boris Asafiev (1917)

PS21: Ustvolskaya Perf. w/ Pianist C. Hanick Review (2020)

This is a review of PS21's performance of Galina Ustvolskaya's Six Sonata's on the night of August 29th, 2020 by the pianist Conor Hanik. This singular performance was part of Modern Music Fest, a performance series created for artists and musicians affected by the precarious nature of the performing arts. August 31st's event will be the black and white film, 'Tokyo Story' by Ian Buruma, so be sure to check out their Facebook Page, which is supplied at the bottom of this review.

Performance Spaces for the 21st Century (PS21), founded in 1999 with leadership by Judy Grunberg, renowned artistic philanthropist, renovated their performance space in 2018 to fit a bigger audience, and to generally expand. Now located in a ‘nineteenth-century apple orchard at the apex of over 100 acres of beautiful Hudson Valley land,’ they now have to their disposal both a 99 seat black box theater and a 300 seat open-air pavilion theater in which to perform various artistic performances of numerous kinds. Although the COVID-19 virus radically altered the live performance experience for both performers and audiences alike, PS21 has utilized technology to their benefit and has offered performances in both live and virtual settings for their patrons. Last night, August 30th, 2020, PS21 offered a single-composer program, dedicated to the the “the lady with a hammer,” Galina Ustvolskaya, a severely disregarded Soviet composer who completely refused to condition herself to the label of avant-garde and settled upon her own creative ‘narrowness’ as her musical nomenclature. This intense establishing of self comes across like jackhammers in her six Sonatas, which were created in a span of 43 years, from 1947 to 1988. Performed by the critically acclaimed contemporary pianist Conor Hanick, these serialistic, contrapuntal vignettes, highlighting the asininity of Soviet Russia’s inability to cope with modernism of all kinds, makes a listener feel utterly lost, often at the expense of melody, although still ‘present.’ Due to the Sonata’s historical positioning, when Hanik played all six uninterrupted, a sonic documentary was astonishingly created and from its flesh burst the tribulations of Ustvolskaya who, despite the odds, succeeded in rebelling against a tyrannical system that so deeply stole her from the public.


Part of Ustvolskaya’s signature technique is her re-imagining of contrapuntalism, texture, and stress versus freedom, Sonata One and Two being shining examples of her emancipation of notes and their function from traditional usage. Rather than compose using Schoenbergian serialism, Schostakovichian atonalism, Ivesian tonality, or Cagean surrealism, Ustvolskaya opts for Ustvolskayian decompositionalism. Instead of using melody as a tool for succinct cohesion, she plays around and manipulates the very principle of musical succinctness, alternatively composing emotions using sound, rather than composing sound to induce emotion. Conor Hanick instinctively picks up on Ustvolskaya’s subtle, posthumous, revolutionary intentions, and treats her written dynamics as suggestions, not to be toyed with but expanded upon. He tastefully uses ffff to ‘rage against the dying of the light,’ intimate pianissimo’s to incapacitate sounds mighty hand, and literal silence and secondary piano-string vibrations as a cherry on a very dense acoustical cake. As one online viewer had pointed out, the point was not to know where one Sonata began and another ended, but to hear the continuity of the message, the rebelling against the fashions of a-traditionalism itself, and to escape the bounds of ‘this sounds like Cage, this sounds like Shostakovich, this reminds me of X, Y, and Z.’ That kind of individualistic command over one’s work is rarely commented on by artists themselves, or by critics and Musicologists alike, as the latter usually search for who influenced the artists and subsequent work, and where did their ‘voice’ originate from. For Ustvolskaya and Conor Hanick, within an hour and 15 minutes, not only did we hear Ustvolskaya’s interior fight for artistic truth, Sonata One to Four, and her full establishment of self, Sonata Five and Six, but also Hanick’s unique ability to embody not only what is on the page (tablet), but what is suggested by the page. That is not an easy feat, because it’s not simply about responding to the music, but actively, and passively, participating in the environment and mental state that the music induces, Ustvolskaya here taking on the position of a musical sculptor of perspective. Through jazz hints, forearm and knuckle cluster chords, as well as Futuristic parallels, these Sonata’s invoke the plight of the 1940s Soviet composer, and their struggle to both remain true to their voice but continue to literally live. They invoke the 1950s composer who, if caught composing in too ‘formalist’ of a mindset, could be thrown to the musical curb. They invoke the early 1960s Soviet composer, and the blossoming interest in modern and avant-garde compositional mannerisms in the public frame, although not yet considered as ‘acceptable.’ They embody the 1970s composer and illustrate the full realization of self Ustvolskaya had created, and her growing public appeal. Finally, they (Sonata Six) embodies the 1980s Soviet composer who, despite all odds, had now overcome Lenin’s boot, Stalin’s boot, Brezhnev’s boot, and somehow never permanently lost their footing.


If you are looking for a musico-historical experience that transports you to Soviet Russia and directly into the mind of Ustvolskaya herself, then by all means press play. But I encourage you to listen not because of the excitement of hearing a student of Shostakovich, or a female composer, or someone who some called ‘avant-garde.’ Listen, truly listen, because you want to hear Galina Ustvolskaya and Conor Hanick, her rightfully ‘narrow’ voice, and his masterful, instinctive intuition. Tune in to the music’s sonic world that is created by two hands and a piano, outfitted with no name, supplied no readable subtext, only able to provide amorphous emotional states and no correct answer, because you are ready to absorb and feel. As someone who loves to intrinsically understand what I listen to, why what I listen was created, and who the work was written by, attending this performance and having no introduction to each Sonata challenged me to grapple with the reality of not knowing where one work ended, and another began. But that is more lifelike, don’t you agree? There is no intermission to life, no break, no third party narrator. Here, it is just you, the music, the performer, the co