Solo classical musicians around the age of 70 need to wrestle with a difficult question. Should they continue as a soloist (despite signs of aging), or become a conductor, or limit one’s activities to chamber music, or teach in academia? Most opt for a comfortable professorship to spend their sunset years, a few others decide to favor the baton and podium to keep themselves in the stage spotlight, but very few can actually achieve the first option of remaining a reliable and bankable solo commodity in a highly competitive business that favors young talent.
Latvian-born violinist Gidon Kremer is one of those very few. He’s indefatigably committed to his solo career, which has been on full boil since the 1970s, but it’s taken a slightly unique path: he’s a champion for lesser-known composers and an instigator of projects that can bring their music to the light. Latest example: he and Budapest’s violinist/conductor András Keller have launched a collaboration that combines their violin artistry and their own two orchestras to create a tour to several Asian destinations, traveling with creatively crafted programs that feature an unusually wide stylistic range of repertoire that includes works by living composers.
On May 19, Budapest was the kick-off city for this tour, which continues throughout June. At the Liszt Academy, a mixture of members of Kremerata Baltica and Concerto Budapest performed a fascinating program of scores by J.S. Bach, Finnish romantic composer Jean Sibelius, and the American minimalist Philip Glass.
The aspect that makes both Keller’s and Kramer’s programming (separately with their own ensembles and together with the combination group) is an adventuresome spirit that places priority on not pandering to the common appetite for “top-40” classics. No, Keller and Kremer aim to tickle our ears with music that is exciting for its unpredictability and innovative energy.
Now, Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins and string orchestra in D minor, is not exactly avant-garde, but in its era, it was revolutionary. It is without a doubt one of the most compelling polyphonic marvels ever written. One can never be bored listening to how Bach’s genius twists and turns the melodies as they mirror each other in clever ways throughout this three-movement piece. Keller and Kramer’s presentation of it (without conductor) was smooth yet spirited, but they essentially played it de facto: letting us witness its amazing internal workings without any unnecessary pretension.
Kremer’s choice to perform the Sibelius concerto as his tour-de-force solo (albeit with the score in front of him) could be considered rather quizzical at this point, especially since a young hot-shot player would certainly do it from memory, but also it’s a work that requires a deep well of passion to unleash itself from the icy fjords it’s made of. While some bow attacks were slightly frayed and occasional intonation a bit suspect, Kremer’s indelible and unflinching capture of a composition’s raison d’être glowed like an infra-red bulb — factors usually reversed in performances by young players. By eschewing the standard concertos and tackling this one, which is not a piece of cake, Kremer is still proving he’s got the chops. For his encore he played a short, and very curious for its stylistic contrasts, two-part unaccompanied piece by a prolific but little-known composer he’s long championed: Mieczyslaw Weinberg.
For their finale, cellist Giedre Dirvanauskaite joined Kremer for Glass’ Double Concerto for Violin and Cello (and orchestra), conducted by Keller. This work is less of a concerto, both in format and in the tradition of keeping the soloist(s) continuously in the spotlight, and more of a series of programmatic sequences. The cello/violin duo served as unaccompanied soloists between orchestral movements where they were more or less woven into the fabric, plus there was no traditional cadenza. From this standpoint, Glass has revolutionized the Concerto into another thing entirely. If only the simplistic duets, which wandered around in a less-than-inspired triadic fashion, had matched the complexity and compelling energy of the orchestral sections, which bristled with originality, tremendous orchestral color, and percussive vigor, the work as a whole would be on a more elevated level. The first of several of these orchestral wonders, which exhibited Glass’ classic minimalist style with persuasive beguilement (after all, we’re in post-minimalism by now) was the most alluring, due to the splendid contribution by the six-man percussion section.
This Glass piece wasn’t a premiere, as it was written in 2010, but it exemplifies exactly what both Kremer and Keller love to present: works that challenge traditions and expose listeners around the world to the vast musical riches beyond the standard repertoire. Their next stop is Peking, followed by Xi’an, Seoul (two concerts), and Taipei. Full tour details are here.
For this kind of ingenuity, age isn’t a factor. I can’t wait to see what they cook up next — and for the next couple of decades, for that matter.