By Inge Kjemtrup
Of all the world-renowned violinists born in the decade after World War II—an exclusive club that includes Pinchas Zukerman, Pierre Amoyal, and Kyung Wha Chung—Gidon Kremer has taken the least- expected path to lasting fame. Today he is best known as a passionate champion and performer of modern music, the founder of an iconoclastic chamber orchestra in his native Latvia, and a public critic of the glitzy marketing of classical music.
2017 is a landmark year for Kremer: He turns 70, while the Kremerata Baltica—the orchestra he founded (made up of young players from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) and a major platform for his activities—marks its 20th anniversary. Looking back over the Kremerata’s history, Kremer tells me that he’s most pleased at having “succeeded in surprising everyone with new projects all these 20 years.” Asked to name a few highlights, he cites the many world premieres the ensemble has made, as well as recordings like the Vivaldi-Piazzolla Eight Seasons and the Grammy-nominated Enescu and Weinberg discs. “I am especially proud that we crossed the borders of conventional concert presentations (without using ‘crossover’ idioms) with semi-theatrical projects.”
One of those “semi-theatrical projects” was Being Gidon Kremer (subtitle: “The Rise and Fall of a Classical Musician”), made with the comic duo Igudesman & Joo. Among other zaniness in the show is a segment where Kremer and the Kremerata have to switch seamlessly between tiny snippets of great concertos, as they are “controlled” by Igudesman on a remote control (“Mozart!” “Mendelssohn!” “Brahms!”). Anyone who would step onstage with these two master musical mischief-makers could hardly be very persnickety about classical-music conventions.
The initial trajectory of Kremer’s career, however, was more conventional. Born in Latvia’s capital, Riga, in 1947, he was four years old when he began studying the violin with his father, a professional violinist. Three years later, Kremer became a student at the Riga Music School, and after winning a national competition, he headed to Moscow, at 18, to study with David Oistrakh. The young Kremer scooped up first prizes at leading violin competitions, including the Queen Elisabeth (1967), Paganini (1969), and Tchaikovsky (1970). In the next 40 years, he performed and recorded the great concertos and chamber music of the Classical and Romantic eras.
In Weinberg’s scores, one always is aware of a human voice. It is not music for composers or professionals, but for the heart and soul.
So far, so expected of a classical violin superstar. Less predictable was his founding in 1981 of the Lockenhaus Chamber Music Festival in Austria. For 30 years the festival has served as a springboard for his interest in music of the 20th and 21st centuries. It was at Lockenhaus that he founded the Kremerata Baltica, a project that he’s said made him feel more “Baltic” in identity, and yet he adds, “I can’t forget that I am by birth a mix of very different (mainly European) cultures: German, Swedish, Latvian—not to omit the Jewish roots of my father.”
The Kremerata Baltica has made some 25 recordings. One bestseller was Eight Seasons, which cleverly folds Astor Piazzolla’s tango portrait of Buenos Aires, Cuarto Estaciónes Porteñas, into Vivaldi’s Four Seasons—the contrast between styles, centuries, and eras works brilliantly. The “seasons” idea has become something a motif for the Kremerata, with Russian Seasons and the American Seasons already finished, and a Japanese Four Seasons on the way. “It is wonderful to see how different the approach to the same theme can be,” Kremer observes.
The ensemble’s latest release is a double CD of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s chamber symphonies and piano quintet. This comes on the heels of a well-received recording of Weinberg’s chamber music and Symphony No. 10. The composer is enjoying a revival, with his operas, symphonies (there are 22), and chamber music being rediscovered. The Polish-born Weinberg (1919–96) was Jewish, and at the start of World War II he fled to the Soviet Union, where Shostakovich became his mentor and protector.
Weinberg’s music is not cut of the same cloth as Shostakovich’s—a reviewer of the first Kremerata disc described Weinberg’s music as possessing “a folkish charm and fibrous intensity that is character-forming.” Kremer says, “in Weinberg’s scores, one always is aware of a human voice. It is not music for composers or professionals, but for the heart and soul.”
Kremer in fact met Weinberg when he was studying with Oistrakh. “I do remember him playing with Oistrakh for us students, and giving in 1968 the first unofficial performance of the Shostakovich Sonata for violin and piano. It was very special. Unfortunately, I only discovered his own music much later. As a youngster I was much more into everything that seemed to be more in the ‘vanguard.’ I do regret it, but we all make mistakes in life. Luckily there was a second chance given to me.”
It’s fair to say that Kremer has more than made up for missing that contact with Weinberg. He’s worked closely with many of the greatest composers of the last 50 years, among them Sofia Gubaidulina, Alfred Schnittke, Luigi Nono, John Adams, Kaija Saariaho, and Leonard Bernstein. “Their attitudes, their hints for how to read the scores helped me a lot to understand what their intentions are,” he says. “This somehow influenced as well my understanding of classical composers. After all ‘classical music’ was born just ‘yesterday’ (some centuries ago), wasn’t it?”
A typically sly Kremer joke. He turns serious again to answer my question about what he looks for in new music. “I do always look for a certain ‘message’ hidden behind handwritten or printed dots, strokes, and bars. Music must speak about something important. Composing for me is not a simple act of juggling with sounds, but a platform to express something important and valid, not for a week or a year, but forever.”
In December, Kremer performed Gubaidulina’s second concerto for violin, In Tempus Praesens (“In the moment”) with the Berlin Philharmonic. I suggest that the work’s title reflects one of his core values as a performer, and he agrees. “The title of Gubaidulina’s piece expresses exactly what always was my driving force: to be, to live, and fill with emotions the moment of a performance. I think this magic in a concert hall must be the most attractive and important feature going to a concert. Not just for me—for everybody.”
Kremer has been unafraid to speak out when he’s seen what he regards as superficial values getting the upper hand in classical music. That’s why he’s withdrawn from performances at the Verbier Festival and, more recently, a German tour, when his proposed replacement for the hot-shot young pianist Daniil Trifonov was rejected—Chopin competition winner Yulianna Avdeeva wasn’t deemed famous and marketable enough by the promoters, he felt. He expressed his displeasure in both cases in public letters that attracted both approval and opprobrium.
If he were in charge of things, what would Kremer like to change in the classical-music industry? “I would wish the music could bloom on its substance and on the positive energies of those who compose, perform, and enjoy it,” he says. “Unfortunately very often its distribution becomes a strategy of the marketing departments. Then the quality of music-making is in danger: The sales numbers, the concern about the quantity of sales takes over. Please understand—I am not trying to question those people, who consider music to be a business. I rather have a critical outlook on all those performers who themselves want to participate in this game. For me they often enter a Faustian deal, selling their soul and talent to the devil. Artistry must remain free from numbers and fame.”
Last year, Kremer became the first violinist to receive the Praemium Imperiale prize, which has been likened to a Nobel Prize for artists. This meant a lot to him: “Mainly I saw it as a confirmation that one should remain loyal to oneself—something I always tried to do and to express . . . It means to me that keeping one’s own values alive, sticking to them after all, makes sense. What is important in our short lives is not just what we experience ourselves, but everything that we are able to share with others. In fact, what we give away.”
In his 70 years, Kremer has given much to the world, and one hopes he will be there as a performer, provocateur, and inspirational force for a long time to come.