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Music review: Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica take a spiritual plunge [updated]

November 2, 2010 |  1:34 pm

KB pic 1s “I love beautiful women,” Gidon Kremer wrote in 1995 at the end of his memoir “Splinters of a Childhood.” “Obviously I shall have a lot of unpleasantness because of this.” Still the Latvian violinist -- who appeared with his chamber orchestra, Kremerata Baltica, at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall Monday night -- seems to have no trouble finding young people (women and men) for his Kremerata beautiful enough to pose for Baltic Vogue, if there is such a thing.

What Kremer doesn’t say is that for him beauty is hardly skin deep. His 23 string players produce exquisitely shaded, gorgeous ensemble work. If they may have also presented unpleasantness Monday, that was because a naked plunge into the substance and soul of music means who knows what inner demons lie at wait.

The program was a multilevel dialogue with history. Five short pieces on the first half were ones that can be found the Kremerata’s new Nonesuch album, “De Profundis.” After intermission, the ensemble tackled a chamber orchestra arrangement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor. The numerals 131 (the quartet’s opus number) constitute a magical prime number in music.

The string players, without Kremer, began with “De Profundis” by Raminta Serksnyte. The title is pretentious, but the Lithuanian composer was 23 when she wrote it in 1998. Looking back to Bartók and forward to Philip Glass, she set an urgent tone with lapidary squeals but then pressed forward with rhythmic urgency.

Kremer joined the Kremerata as soloist in an early Schubert minuet. A vibraphone (Andrei Pushkarev) was added for Arvo Pärt’s Passacaglia, Georg Pelecis’ “Flowering Jasmine” and Lera Auerbach's “Sogno di Stabat Mater.”

Pärt’s Passacaglia, from 2007 –- like the Estonian composer’s “Fratres,” which Kremer made famous 30 years earlier –- is a study of pulsating intensity with cosmic overtones. But here it further served as a brother to Schubert’s lyricism. Pelecis, a Latvian contemporary of Kremer, let a lovely melody flow like a steady seven-minute stream, the vibraphone responsible for the ripples.

Auerbach, a 37-year-old Russian pianist and composer, characterized "Sogno" as a dialogue with Pergolesi’s 18th century “Stabat Mater.” Written for solo violin, viola (Ula Ulijona) and vibraphone, it seemed more an argument, as bright Baroque music faced up to strong, serious Slavic soul mate.

Beethoven’s string quartet, written in 1826, has been called uncanny by the scholar Joseph Kerman, who reminds us that a member of the Guarneri Quartet once said that this “grotesque and wild” work makes you “want to bark like a dog.” And so, Monday, the uncanny Kremerata, with Kremer sitting in the concertmaster chair, barked like a pack of dogs in the mysterious night.

Beethoven’s disconcerting accents, disconcerting syncopations, disconcerting withholding of melodies and equally disconcerting revelations in their restructurings, have inspired more than one commentator to call up Freud’s name (even though Beethoven died more than a quarter century before Freud was born). The Kremerata version of the 40-minute quartet for string orchestra, which is in seven movements but played without a pause, was by Kremer and Victor Kissine. A string quartet began the opening fugue’s exposition, with the rest of the ensemble coming in as reinforcements for a spiritual pursuit.

Complex music written as an intimate psychodrama for four was wrought large, its internal struggles with consonance and dissonance, with continuity and discontinuity, with the mundane and profound, were made epic. But the spiritual palette became larger as well as the Kremerata took its naked plunge with the foolhardiness and wisdom of youth.

The technically superb performance inaugurated a two-year survey of late-Beethoven by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, which presented the Kremerata. Clearly, the society means business.

Kremer’s encore was no occasion for unpleasantness. It was a tango, “Michelangelo 70,” by Astor Piazzolla, who happened to know a thing or two about writing music for and about beautiful women.

-- Mark Swed

[updated: an earlier version of this review had the wrong year for Kremer's book.]


Kremerata Baltica, Knights: two small orchestras seeking to break boundaries in very different ways

Photo: Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica. Credit: Philharmonic Society of Orange County.