A decade after their only previous appearance here, the Kremerata Baltica chose Seattle to launch their current two-week tour of North America. Violinist Gidon Kremer and his peripatetic chamber orchestra performed on Friday night at Benaroya Hall as part of the Seattle Symphony’s Visiting Orchestras series. The concert crackled with the sense of inspired adventure that is their trademark.
Kremer, a native of Latvia, bristled against Soviet conformism early in his career, and he remains a vital advocate of innovative thinking about the repertory. Instead of sticking to endless repeats of predictable (and profitable) comfort food, he has championed a remarkable spectrum of composers from our time: Arvo Pärt, Astor Piazzolla, Giya Kancheli, Sofia Gubaidulina, and John Adams, among many others.
In 1997 Kremer founded the Kremerata Baltica, a group of over two dozen young musicians primarily in their 20s who for the most part hail from Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. The (punningly) eponymous ensemble, which tours extensively, serves both as a musical ambassador for intriguing new voices (particularly from the Baltic and Eastern Europe) and a kind of research laboratory for the ultra-cosmopolitan Kremer.
Amid their busy schedule of annual tours, the Kremerata has recently added two new CDs to their excellent catalogue: "Hymns & Prayers" (ECM) and "De Profundis" (Nonesuch), which features a wide-ranging assortment of composers. "De Profundis" provided the source for the program’s second half.
Kremer himself remained backstage for the first piece, Béla Bartók’s Divertimento for String Orchestra from 1939, which the ensemble performed without conductor. It proved an ideal showcase for the qualities that make the Kremerata so thrilling to hear. They negotiated the score’s shifts of mood with aerodynamic precision, nailing the dizzying unison passages and digging into its jagged rhythms. This was a decidedly dark reading that sought out the surreal, eve-of-war undercurrents beneath Bartók’s neoclassical surfaces and deceptively lightweight title. Yet merely dramatic effects were not the goal. The Adagio’s oppressive, carefully built climax had weight and substance and lingered, never entirely dispelled by the animal spirits of the finale.
Next up was a nod to the Schumann bicentennial year as Kremer joined the ensemble for the Cello Concerto in a version retooled by French composer René Koering for solo violin, string orchestra, and timpani, with Kremer taking the part of soloist. In this late work, Schumann made the razzle-dazzle “show-off” qualities inherent in the concerto format take a back seat to soulful expression. Even with as masterfully imaginative a musician as Kremer, though, it was hard to avoid a bit of cello envy: the memory of the original solo lines kept returning like a phantom limb. And the fact that Schumann’s orchestration was reduced for string ensemble, punctuated by timpani, made whole swathes sound distractingly homogenous.
Still, it was an interesting experiment. And in the very different second part of the program, where the focus turned to contemporary pieces, you began to realize this was part of a larger scheme by Kremer and his band to juxtapose different kinds of musical poetry. Raminta Šerkšnyte, a Lithunanian composer in her mid-30s, uses the string ensemble like an action painter in sound in "De Profundis." Her super-coloristic writing wrests a large-scale orchestra’s worth of variety from the strings. Even if the piece veers at times into staginess, it bursts with imagination, mixing violent pizzicatos and tornado scales with long pauses as unnerving as a walk through an unlit alley. The Kremerata chose this work as the title track of their new Nonesuch CD. In the booklet, Kremer contrasts the commodity of oil (also drawn “from the depths”) with music as “likewise a fuel – fuel for the soul, which is “is felt in the impenetrable depths of our consciousness.”
Certainly their haunting performance of a minuet by the teenaged Schubert (No. 3, in D minor, of the Five Minuets and Six Trios, D. 89), rearranged from Schubert’s original setting for string quartet, probed unsuspected depths. The Passacaglia by Arvo Pärt that followed, written for violin and vibraphone with string orchestra, revealed a magically buoyant sound from this composer with whom Kremer (its dedicatee) has been so closely tied for decades. His solo violin took wing, its filigree of arpeggios dovetailing with the vibraphone like a celestial concerto grosso.
A brief piece by Stevan Kovacs Tickmayer, a former student of Kurtág, set a fragment from Bach’s St. John Passion but didn’t make much of an impression between the Pärt and what followed, Georgs Pelecis’s "Flowering Jasmine." The latter’s gently dancing diatonic flow was spelled out by the combination of solo violin, string orchestra, and vibraphone that the Kremerata has been exploring of late.
In fact, though it’s often thought of as a “string ensemble,” the Kremerata includes Ukrainian percussionist Andrei Pushkarev, who shared the spotlight with Kremer in the pieces calling for vibraphone. Especially in the final selections — Piazzolla’s eternally wistful “Melodia in A” (“Canto de Octubre”) and the wryly sprung “Fuga” — you could sense the kind of freedom Kremer obviously encourages from his musicians, all while maintaining impeccable ensemble coordination. As Pushkarev added dazzling vibraphone counterpoint, the players exuded the collective joy and spontaneity of a jam session in full throttle.
A couple of encores (neither of which were explained or I recognized) included an arch send-up of salon-style sentimentality and a stringless piece of performance art where the players set aside their instruments to chant in a maniacal patter — like a football cheer as imagined by Ligeti. A relatively lighter tone overall pervaded the program’s second half, but even at its most relaxed the Kremerata Baltica has a way of retuning your listening patterns and refreshing your ears. Above all, familiar repertory and contemporary music come across as parts of the same vital and ongoing conversation. That may well be the most significant legacy Kremer is passing on to this young generation.