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Harmonious Convergence

By B.A. Nilsson

Kremerata Baltica with Gidon Kremer
Union College Memorial Chapel, April 28

Between concerts in Chicago and Manhattan, Gidon Kremer and his virtuoso string orchestra made a stop in Schenectady. They don’t get much more world class than this group, yet it’s pretty much the norm for the Union College Concert Series, which has presented this level of talent for 30 years.

Although he’s one of the world’s top violinists, Kremer prefers the role of iconoclast to icon. He plays the standard repertory, but you’re more likely to find him behind a new work—probably one that he commissioned. During the past few years he has celebrated the music of Argentinean composer Astor Piazzolla with concerts and a series of recordings; he is also closely allied with the music of Schnittke, Vasks, Pärt, Adams and others.

He formed Kremerata Baltica in 1997 to bring together talented string players from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Rehearsals are reputed to be lengthy and exhausting, but the results, to judge from last Sunday’s concert, are amazing. The big familiar work on the program was Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, written for string sextet but so bursting at the seams that it worked just as well in a version for string orchestra.

All the evidence you needed of the ensemble’s accomplishment was there to see. They breathe together. They watch one another. In the more emotionally charged moments, they don’t have to watch one another—they’re synchronized through passion.

If Tchaikovsky was the crowd-pleaser, the first three works provided much more intellectual and emotional provocation. Arvo Pärt’s Orient & Occident, the 1999-vintage piece that opened the concert, was a brief, plaintive study in harmony and silence, taking the conductorless ensemble through a textural transformation that was moving and effective.

Leonid Desyatnikov’s Russian Seasons for violin, soprano and string orchestra is also not much more than two years old. Desyatnikov helped Kremer put together a recording pairing the seasons of Vivaldi and Piazzolla, and no doubt drew inspiration from that occasion. And you can’t musically portray those seasons without the shadow of Vivaldi hanging over you, so Desyatnikov’s piece begins with the rising third and rhythmic bounce of Vivaldi’s opening, but quickly inhabits a musical language of its own.

Soprano Julia Korpacheva sang the Russian texts; translations weren’t available, but the occasional “cuckoo” assured us that something nature-related was in the air—and conveyed with a deep timbre and impressive fullness of tone. Kremer played the challenging solo violin part, reminding us (as if we needed it) that he has amazing chops. A duet passage with the bass section in the beginning of the second section was nicely shaded, although Kremer’s tone tends to grow shrill when he’s hard at work.

The newest work on the program, Lera Auerbach’s Suite for Violin, Piano and Strings, was written last year for this ensemble. The composer herself played the solo piano part, and if that weren’t enough of a talent threat, we were reminded in the program that she’s also an award-winning poet.

With a high-minded inspiration (nothing less than Cycles of Life), Auerbach’s suite combined a plangent but diatonic musical language with Rachmaninoff-like excesses of romanticism—an effective combo when you’re dealing with heavy issues. The interplay between solo violin and piano was extremely accomplished, and her use of the orchestra was similarly outstanding. And she’s not afraid of melody, whether in the Mozartean lilt of the second movement or the haunting lullaby that concludes the piece.

Classical music is a dead issue when living composers are left behind; Kremer and his group reminded us that, when chosen and played by the best, this kind of music continues to live and breathe and change our lives.

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