When Sofia Gubaidulina was growing up in the Tatar countryside of the Soviet Union after World War II, she would go into the fields and, on her knees, pray, "Lord, make me a composer and I will endure whatever you might want me to suffer." A half-century later, she has become one of the most compelling composers on the international scene.

But her path was not always easy. As an artist coping with the strictures of Soviet culture, she found her explorations were not appreciated. Yet upon her graduation from the Moscow Conservatory in 1959, composer Dmitri Shostakovich told her, "I want you to continue along your mistaken path."

"I'll never forget those encouraging words," Gubaidulina says. "It is very difficult for a young person to hear only criticism. Shostakovich encouraged me to be myself, no matter what everybody else said, and I am very grateful for that."

Gubaidulina's music is often described as mystical, but much different from the recent excursions of Arvo Part and Henryk Gorecki. Although she highlights instrumental color, it is the composer's combination of timbre and rhythm that is consistently emphasized--together with an overriding interest in form. In addition, she uses peculiar instrumentation, particularly Asian strings and percussion. An example of this is "In the Shadow of the Tree," which received its American premiere in Washington this year. The work is scored for orchestra, Japanese koto, bass koto and Chinese sheng.

Gubaidulina's colleagues from Soviet days were Edison Denisov and Alfred Schnitke. Schnitke adopted much of Shostakovich's style. Denisov rebelled, consciously avoiding the older composer's approach. But Gubaidulina remained unscathed by the issue, avoiding Shostakovich's legacy by turning inward. To some extent, she attributes this detachment to being a woman in Soviet Russia. "Nobody took much notice of me. They could always dismiss what I did as simple female eccentricity. It was much harder for men."

Actually, Gubaidulina has often been compared to later 20th-century Polish composers like Witold Lutoslawski, Krzysztof Penderecki and Gyorgy Ligeti. And her music idols from the past are Johann Sebastian Bach and Anton von Webern. In fact, her "Offertorium" (a 1980 composition that first brought her fame in the West) is generated from the royal theme of Bach's "Musical Offering" and presented in a variety of timbres reminiscent of von Webern's music.

Tonight at 7, music director Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic will present the Washington premiere of Gubaidulina's latest work, "Two Paths, Concerto for Two Violas," in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Commissioned by Tomoko Masur (Kurt Masur's wife), this double concerto represents a portrait of Martha and Mary, sisters of Lazarus in the Gospel of Saint John. In this story, Christ visits the home of the two sisters. Mary becomes totally immersed in Christ's teaching, while a beleaguered Martha labors to serve food for the gathering. As Gubaidulina puts it, the work symbolizes "two ways of loving--to love taking upon oneself worldly cares and by so doing ensure the foundation of life; and to love dedicating oneself to the sublime, so as to procure light and blessing for life." And so the first viola (representing Mary and the sublime) starts out playing pitches just higher than the second one (symbolizing Martha and worldly love), and then continues higher until finally rising to ethereal heights. The second viola starts in the middle register and eventually descends to lower pitches. So the violas initially intertwine and then separate.

This work symbolizes polarity, very much a part of Gubaidulina's compositions. In fact, this confrontation of opposites and their meeting point is what she describes as her "cross" and the central theme in much of her work. She is driven by these contrasts within a spiritual realm. The composer, now 68, has often said that she wants to lead an audience from reality to spirituality--using music as a vision.

"I believe that the composer's role in the modern world is to serve in assisting those in search of the divine."

CAPTION: Sofia Gubaidulina's new work premieres tonight at the Kennedy Center.