Concert Review: Kremer & Kremerata Baltica Perform with Exquisite Clarity and Boundless Energy

This past Saturday, Contrapuntist and I attended a performance by Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica at the Harris Theater. The concert marked the ensemble’s only Midwest appearance during their 2010-2011 tour. The program included several works off of their recently released album, De Profundis, which Kremer dedicated to “all those who refuse to be silenced, who understand that the real freedom is within us”.

The Kremerata, comprised of 27 leading young professional musicians from the Baltic states, dazzled with their homogeneous sound and tight ensemble playing. There were very few instances where an individual musician would stick out with an out-of-tune note or inaccurate rhythm. In addition, every player appeared emotionally invested throughout the performance. There was never a moment where it felt as if they were just phoning it in. It was also a joy to hear Gidon Kremer, whose expressive playing seems to originate directly from his gut.

The first piece, Béla Bartók’s Divertimento for string orchestra, had a strong Romanian folksong influence. The first movement gave the orchestra the opportunity to demonstrate its exuberant energy. The second movement began with a well-controlled pianississimo and moved through beautifully crafted phrasing. Perhaps I’ve been watching too many vampire movies lately, but I thought this movement would work perfectly in a Dracula soundtrack. The third movement featured pyrotechnic solos by the concertmistress.

The second piece was Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto Op. 129, arranged for violin and strings by René Koering. I must admit that I’m unfamiliar with the original version, so it’s hard for me to judge if the arrangement was effective. Many times, Kremer’s tone was chocolatey enough to rival a box of Godivas. The overall performance was fervent and direct as a bullet, despite a few intonation and cleanliness problems. I enjoyed the concerto, although I spoke with a colleague who did not like the orchestration and felt that the piece simply did not work on violin.

After intermission, the Kremerata performed selections off of De Profundis. The first work was the title track, De Profundis for string orchestra by Raminta Šerkšnyte. The ensemble performed the rhythmically complicated music with effortless clarity and passion. The minimalistic piece featured a recurring 16th note motive as well as sound effects including Bartok pizzicato and ponticello.

Minuet in D Minor from “Five Minuets and Six Trios” D. 89 by Franz Schubert, provided a complete stylistic contrast from the Šerkšnyte. The arrangement transformed the original chamber piece into a concerto grosso with Kremer as soloist and a quintet (two violins, viola, cello, and bass) serving as the concertino. Near the end of the work, Kremer performed a solo which was as delicate as porcelain.

Passacaglia for violin solo and string orchestra by Arvo Pärt pulsed with spacious harmonies that rang out through the use of open strings, a repetitive walking motive, and a gradual crescendo. The piece unexpectedly ended with Kremer’s gypsy-like violin cadenza.

The program had originally included After Glenn Gould by Stevan Kovacs Tickmayer. However, because composer Lera Auerbach was in attendance, the Kremerata instead performed her Dialogues on Stabat Mater for chamber orchestra, solo violin, solo viola, and vibraphone. Based on Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater”, the work featured Kremer (violin), Ula Ulijona (viola) and Andrei Pushkarev (vibraphone). Much of the piece was written in dissonant, neo-baroque style. Although Ulijona played with flawless technique and a warm sound, she was unable to match Kremer’s robust tone. I’m not sure what type of instrument she was playing, but part of the discrepancy may have been between her viola and Kremer’s 17th-century Amati violin. However, her vibrato was too narrow, and she did not allow her bow arm to dig deeply enough into the instrument to produce a deep sound.

Melodia in A and Fuga by Astor Piazzolla featured Kremer and Pushkarev as soloists. During the Melodia, Kremer’s sumptuous sound evoked a sensuous, Argentinian mood. The Fuga displayed Pushkarev’s formidable vibraphone chops. The piece begins with the orchestra using their instruments in an unconventional way to produce the tango rhythm. The violins, violas, and cellos squeaked their bows on the wrong side of the bridge while the bassists slapped their hands against the shoulders of their instruments.

The Kremerata graced the audience with two encores. Piazzolla’s Michelangelo ’70 featured Kremer and Pushkarev as soloists. The orchestra seem to truly let go and jam. Pushkarev used his entire body to play the vibraphone in a brilliant frenzy.

The final encore, Ernst Toch’s Geography Fugue (with words arranged by Kremer), is a piece for speaking choir. Part of a work entitled Gesprochene Musik, the piece premiered at the Berlin Festival of Contemporary Music in 1930 and became famous in the United States thanks to John Cage (this article gives more historical background about the piece) The orchestra set their instruments aside and enthusiastically shouted the words; several musicians even gestured with their hands like rappers.

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