At 90, a Composer Is Still Sending Out Blasts

“The ensemble try to build up enough of their own momentum to come out on top,” he said, adding: “The orchestra fights back with large forces, with crescendos going back and forth. My feeling is they’re all trying to work it out.” Then the climax is “a moment of reconciliation, consolidation and redemption.”

Gubaidulina and Meshchaninov made their way west in the early 1990s, in the wake of the chaos following the Soviet Union’s dissolution. Her only child, Nadia Gubaidulina, a biochemist from her first marriage, stayed in Russia.

The ’90s were for her a period of major commissions from leading soloists and ensembles, and an expanding use of unusual instrumentation and unconventional sounds. In her 1996 Viola Concerto, written for Yuri Bashmet and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, she introduced the rumbling power of Wagner tubas. The piece “develops the very high register for the viola,” said Antoine Tamestit, who has been playing it since 2006, “and then opposes it with the tubas.”

In 1997 she composed “The Canticle of the Sun” for Rostropovich; written for cello, a small choir and percussion, the piece calls for the soloist to retune a string between phrases, to use a stick instead of a bow, and to eventually replace the cello with a flexatone, which can sound like a musical saw. Based on a song by St. Francis of Assisi that thanks God for the splendors of creation, it has become one of her most performed works.

“Dialogue: I and You,” the violin concerto, concludes with the soloist’s long, slowly depleting, sky-high A, which Duffek said might suggest “the soul having risen to heaven after a long earthly fight.” Some Gubaidulina watchers sense a new darkness entering her recent work. Nelsons described “The Wrath of God” as “really scary.”

Speaking over tea, she used the word “tragic” to describe the effects of pieces of music or individual instruments, but it might also be applied to her own life. In 2004 her daughter died of cancer at 44, and Meshchaninov died in 2006 after suffering an aortic aneurysm.