Gidon Kremer: A Violinist on a Mission, or Several of Them

Gidon Kremer, Kremerata Baltica
The New York Times

By James R. Oestreich

Gidon Kremer, the Russian-trained Latvian violin virtuoso who turns 70 next month, has never shied away from connecting his art and his politics.

On a North American tour that has just begun with concerto performances in Boston and arrives at the 92nd Street Y with a concert on Feb. 2 by Mr. Kremer’s chamber orchestra, Kremerata Baltica, he is forwarding a social agenda, if not a political one. The second half of the chamber program is called “Russia: Masks & Faces,” and its centerpiece is Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” in a new orchestration, with projected images of paintings.

Ho-hum, right?

But the paintings are not those of Viktor Hartmann that inspired Mussorgsky’s work. They are, Mr. Kremer said, “pictures from another exhibition,” painted by Maxim Kantor, a Russian artist and social commentator.

“It’s a statement for our time,” Mr. Kremer said. “It’s a joint statement of two artists who speak about the same subject: political oppression, people in power and people in trouble.”

Mr. Kremer, interviewed at his hotel, near Lincoln Center, spoke with a quiet intimacy that belied his passion and contrasted markedly with the command he shows in stage performance.

“I can’t say anything about American artists these days, but I feel solidarity with Meryl Streep,” he said of her recent Golden Globes speech. “I adored her passionate and sympathetic speech from the very first word till the very last one. The whole election campaign was full of so many lies familiar to me from Russia, but it was very surprising for me that, on the other end of the world, so many people would feel like they want these lies to prevail.”

Mr. Kremer has always seemed a man on a mission, or several of them. In addition to a newly relevant “Pictures at an Exhibition,” he has in recent years focused on Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a little-known Polish composer who died in 1996 and was, as Mr. Kremer continues to show, perhaps as prolific as Shostakovich and hardly less gifted. Weinberg is the latest in a series of more or less hidden 20th-century masters, many still active and some female, whose music Mr. Kremer has discovered and championed.

“Weinberg is such an incredible example of a personality that’s kind of neglected,” he said. “Neglected by me, too. I must say that it was a big fault of mine that I didn’t discover him earlier. But you see, occasionally it takes time, like a good wine.”

To open his tour, he is playing Weinberg’s Violin Concerto of 1959, a traditionally cast, melodious work beloved by Shostakovich, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington. Then he travels throughout the United States and Canada with Kremerata Baltica, playing the “Pictures” program, which also includes Weinberg’s elegiac Chamber Symphony No. 4 (1992), the last work the composer completed.

In the meantime, ECM New Series is to release Kremerata recordings of all four Weinberg chamber symphonies, along with an orchestration of the Piano Quintet. (Deutsche Grammophon, which recently released a 22-CD set of Mr. Kremer’s concerto recordings for the label, will soon add a disc of the two Rachmaninoff piano trios performed by Mr. Kremer, the pianist Daniil Trifonov and the cellist Giedre Dirvanauskaite.)

Another of Mr. Kremer’s missions of the moment is the Kremerata itself, a crack group of youngish musicians from the Baltic States. It was founded by Mr. Kremer in 1997, to celebrate his 50th birthday, and is thus celebrating an anniversary of its own. Typically led from the violin by Mr. Kremer, it also performs conducted by others (the fast-rising Lithuanian maestra Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, for example, in the Fourth Chamber Symphony on ECM) or unconducted, as in this New York visit.

“It’s a kind of family,” Mr. Kremer said. “I’m very happy that for 20 years I maintained the same spirit — youthful, adventurous, lack of routine — and that keeps me as well wanting to go on as long as I can with the group. But I am also trying to build a bridge for them to have a future. They can be independent.”

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