By Daniel Felsenfeld
At the point in his extremely distinguished career at which violin soloist Gidon Kremer could well be resting on his own hard-earned laurels, he has instead chosen to redefine his own musical mission. And it is, indeed, a mission. His 1996 creation, the Kremerata Baltica—his acclaimed string orchestra—is made up of some of the most talented young people from his homeland, Latvia. With several discs out, including a recent release devoted to the chamber music of Georges Enescu and that celebrates the orchestra’s fifth anniversary, Kremer shows no signs of slowing.
The Verbier Music Academy and Festival in Switzerland, where Kremer was in residence this summer to perform Berg’s watershed Violin Concerto, is an ideal place to have a casual, thought-provoking conversation with a major player on the world musical stage. It’s the sort of place where pianist Evgeny Kissin can be seen buying shoes or you can catch maestro James Levine dining on an outdoor patio or perhaps share a drink with violist Yuri Bashmet at a local after-hours pub. Far removed from the rest of the world amid the Swiss Alps, the festival favors musical excellence over cult of personality. From the casual elegance of his room at the Hotel Vanessa, the sweater-clad Kremer, 55, is at ease, articulate, and poised to answer questions in a careful but interesting way.
He is a man who is heavily influenced by the toil in his own homeland—as most Eastern Europeans seem to be—and with good cause. He grew up in what was then the Soviet Union, and has since witnessed powerful changes there. “Living long enough in a totalitarian system was not a holiday,” he says, “but it gave me and many of my colleagues a sense that what we were doing in music—in art—had even more meaning. We felt it was not just a career, something you do to entertain people, but something with great spiritual and ethical meaning.
“I guess I was one of those who identified with it, and I am still trying to identify with it.”
The relationship between the former Soviet Union and Kremer has been one freighted with tension. “In the past, I had a difficult relationship with the authorities; there were years I was allowed to travel, but only on a restricted basis,” he recalls. “Then I broke the rules and stayed in the West, so I could not go back to the Soviet Union. I didn’t keep my Soviet passport; I was no longer considered a Soviet artist, which I don’t regret.”
Sadly, as his relationship with the former Soviet Union suffered, he began to lose his audiences there. They could never see him perform, so he faded from their memory. But then something rather miraculous happened: Soviet rule collapsed. “When the Soviet Union broke up,” he says, “and I no longer had to answer to their authority, I considered myself much more to be a Latvian, because Latvia had become independent. Since I formed the Kremerata Baltica, I identify more with the Baltic region.”
Still, Kremer has not forgotten his past, or what it was like to live in such oppressive conditions: “Now I try to appear in the former Soviet Union as a soloist with the Kremerata,” he explains. “We give a lot of benefit concerts; I am trying to be loyal to my past.”
It’s a different time for Latvia—for all of the former Eastern Bloc countries—and Kremer has strong, mixed feelings about the changes. When asked how he feels his homeland is doing, he observes, “I am not one to judge, but there seems that—not only in Latvia, but in Ukraine and Estonia—there is a big division, whether to preserve the nation or sever all Soviet ties. We are struggling. Economically it is quite tough because as a nation we have very little to sell. But there is a sense of some improvement. The musical life, however, is not so great. The establishment cannot support all the musicians and cultural activities, so we have a task just to survive.”
The Complete Experience
Kremer was born in Riga, Latvia, in 1947. At age four, he began studying violin with his father and grandfather, both distinguished string players. At the age of seven, he entered Riga Music School and nine years later received the first Prize of the Latvian Republic award. At 18, he began studies with David Oistrakh at the Moscow Conservatory. Kremer went on to win the 1967 Queen Elisabeth Competition and the first prize in both Paganini and Tchaikovsky International Competitions, among other prestigious awards.
Since turning professional, he has collaborated with many of the world’s foremost conductors, including Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan, Christoph Eschenbach, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Lorin Maazel, Riccardo Muti, Zubin Mehta, James Levine, Valery Gergiev, Claudio Abbado, and Sir Neville Marriner, among others. His repertoire encompasses many standard classical and romantic period composers, including Brahms, but he is best known for his interest in 20th-century works.
In 1996, Kremer had the idea to form a democratic orchestra, with himself not as dictatorial conductor, but as a gentle sovereign and soloist. But it is an ensemble with a political mission: to help the musical life in his own beloved Baltic region and to remind the world there are three Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. “I see it as a cultural mission,” Kremer says. “It feels more like a study group than an orchestra. It also gives gifted musicians from that region a chance to see the world. And after all of this success, the country decided they wanted to support the project—which was good because no group in the world can exist without sponsors, depending solely on income from concerts.”
And it keeps him busy. “I spend more time with the orchestra than I do anywhere,” he says, “including my home.”
Most interesting about this orchestra, apart from its dynamic sound and very live presence on recordings, is the repertoire it has chosen to record. Each album is a complete experience, very carefully planned and presented. But Kremer’s musical choices on this level are not political. “I never considered myself to be a dissident,” he says, “I just felt I had to do my duty, and to defend the composers and compositions I believed in.”
And his contract with the always-daring Nonesuch label has been a productive collaboration, allowing Kremer, the visionary, to move forth with his own musical and spiritual projects. “We work to expand our repertoire, and put a lot of thought into our recordings.”
This has not always been easy, especially as Kremer is an idealist working in a capitalist society—a true artist, one of great depth and conviction, who must answer to the powers that be. “I had to make a commercial enterprise as well—that meant [pleasing] the record companies, who mainly want what sells.”
For Art’s Sake
This subject is a hot topic for him, and as he speaks Kremer becomes more adamant and animated (though always with dignity and slow composure). “This is not my goal [to sell records]; mine is to defend values that relate to art, to history, to quality, and so on,” he says. “It is important to acknowledge that what sells is not always a product of quality; it is more often something that is designed to be bought and digested by the majority of people. But I don’t want to belong to a club of composers or performers who create music for a small group of people, for snobs. I don’t believe in music that is, in the words of Mauricio Kagel, ‘by composers for composers.’ I believe in music that is alive.
“You have to differentiate between music that is attractive and music that is just cheap.”
This leads to a discussion of popular music, both in the classical-music industry and beyond, another subject on which Kremer has strong opinions. He doesn’t believe that there is no talent in pop and jazz—in fact, he sympathizes with many of its performers, who have to answer to the masses even more than classical musicians do.
“Even in that world, the commercial aspect has taken over, and that’s why certain pop stars last only for a short while,” he says. “This has also taken over our industry; stars are ‘created’ for a few years, and agents, record companies, and promoters squeeze from them as much money as they can. I have no gifts for finance or marketing,” he adds. When asked if the Kremerata records are selling, he simply isn’t sure, “but I just feel instinctively that the merchandising of classical music has more to do with being a phenomenon than to actual artistic ability.
“People are led to believe they are getting a big star—to listen to, to see, to buy—but these so-called ‘stars’ have little to deliver. They have no individual message or personality, and are praised for their ‘perfect’ performances; but these are not interpretations. Too much emphasis is placed on the idea of perfection, and too little on real artistry.”
When asked how he might approach the interpretation of a piece, Kremer smirks, explaining that the answer to that question is in fact endless. “Creativity is a process by which you are questioning yourself, every hour, every minute of every day,” he observes. “You have to make mistakes; you have to search for your individual taste—it is very complex.”
Yet he does offer an answer in the fashion of a contradiction, explaining how he would not go about finding his way into a piece of music—particularly one that has been performed and recorded countless times. “I would not do what one of those young, highly acclaimed ‘stars’ I was talking about—and I will not give you a name—said when asked how they approached interpretation. Apparently that person said: ‘It’s very simple: I listen to recordings of my esteemed colleagues, and imitate the one I like best.’ That is true—I didn’t make it up.
“I don’t want to be one of those pretentious celebrities, those who make a big name for themselves and—I think I should say it—who appear beside me at the Verbier Festival, but have little to say.”
Still Kremer doesn’t find himself infallible. “Occasionally, I run on empty, too, but going back to my early education and ethics, the primary goal of my own upbringing was to always do things for a purpose. It was not just a quest to be ‘perfect,’ but to give an audience an injection of novelty, to expand their vision and horizons. This is why I clung to certain composers; this is also why I created the Kremerata Baltica.”
He is quick to add: “I am not saying that there are no gifted musicians anymore, no independent spirits. Please don’t make it sound like Gidon Kremer has gotten to that age where he doesn’t like anything or see any value in young musicians. I do.”
In fact, Kremer has hired the young musicians in Latvia that he really believes in. “I can see that the players in the Kremerata, while they might not all be great soloists, have such a fresh and sincere approach to music,” says. “I have a lot of solidarity for their struggle, for their interest in different repertoire, new interpretations.”
When asked about the Berg Concerto, he declines to comment, saying that he never speaks about works as he is performing them. That night, his performance is stellar—all his talk of ethics, of finding the spiritual in art is evident in his rendering of Berg’s mystical concerto.
For Kremer, the man who has worked with so many famous maestros, and who has performed with all the major orchestras, it is always about finding something fresh, something truly alive.
Kremerata Baltica on Disc
Gidon Kremer’s more than 100 albums have included recordings of Berg, Bach, Stockhausen, Schnittke, Arvo Pärt, John Adams, and Piazzolla, among others. Here is a sampling of discs recorded with his own string orchestra, Kremerata Baltica:
Happy Birthday (Nonesuch 79657)
On its latest release, the last in an initial six-CD contract with the Nonesuch label, Kremerata Baltica celebrates its fifth birthday with a mixed bag of Schnittke, Heidrich, Kakhidze, Sevais, Ghys, Tchaikovsky, and Bor.
George Enescu, Op. 7 and 29 (Nonesuch 79682)
This immensely powerful rendering of the Romanian composer’s Octet for Strings, No. 7, and Quintet for Piano and Strings, No. 29 was released last year to broad acclaim.
After Mozart (Nonesuch 79633)
This 2001 Grammy Award–winning recording brought together works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his father Leopold, as well as three works by 20th-century composers inspired by the younger Mozart.
Tracing Astor (Nonesuch 79601)
This 2001 disc—the third in a trilogy of Kremer recordings dedicated to Argentinean composer and bandoneon master Astor Piazzolla—was hailed by the Boston Globe as “the best” of the batch of similar tributes.
Silencio (Nonesuch 79582)
An intriguing collection of meditative 20th-century works for string orchestra by Part, Glass, and Martynov.
Eight Seasons (Nonesuch 79568)
Perhaps Kremer’s best-selling disc. This lush recording from 2000 alternates Vivaldi’s popular Four Seasons with Piazzolla’s own seasonal-themed works.
What He Plays
Gidon Kremer performs and records on a Guarneri del Gesù, “ex-David,” dated from 1730.