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Kremerata Baltica at Shriver Hall

Shriver Hall, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md.You know your concert habit is bad when you drag yourself to Baltimore not once (for Hoffmann) but twice in a three-day period. Yes, there I was this Monday, May 2, walking into the Temple of Music that is Shriver Hall, a typical college auditorium on a bucolic campus (Johns Hopkins University), in the midst of a less than bucolic urban neighborhood. The reason? To attend a recently scheduled concert by Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica Chamber Orchestra, talked up by Alex Ross among others, in the program that they would take to Carnegie Hall on the following night.

The program was a doozie, beginning with a work for the full group Kremer had brought with him (piano quartet plus two percussionists), the Baltimore premiere of Prinoshenie ("Offering"), completed in 2004, by Alexander Wustin (b. 1943). This gutsy sort of programming is not unusual for Kremer, and the audacity of it was quite welcome. The work opens with a theme that is treated in canon by violin, glockenspiel, and piano in the high register, which was the original combination envisioned by Wustin (he added viola and cello later). There are two sections that sound like variations, both still in canon, and in the next section, Wustin adds drums, viola, cello, cymbal, wood block. The clanging, detached, pointillistic economy of the piece up to this point becomes a frenzy of rhythmic vitality, winding down to a soft ending like an old watch. The importance of canonic imitation seems to explain the work's title, which struck me as a reference to the complex canons of Bach's The Musical Offering, although the program notes do not confirm this suspicion in any way. The piece bubbled along for 7 or 8 minutes and seemed more like an encore than something with which to open a program.

I have read elsewhere that Wustin dedicated Prinoshenie to the memory of his countryman, Dmitri Shostakovich, which probably led Kremer to include this piece on a program with two of that composer's dazzling final works. First, violist Kristine Blaumane and pianist Andrius Zlabys performed the Sonata for Viola and Piano in F Major, op. 147, which Shostakovich completed in the last months before he died in 1975. The first movement (Moderato) is steeped in melancholy, from the viola opening in soft pizzicato, lutelike. The anguished sounds (at one point, reminiscent of the "night music" sound of Bartók) have usually been connected to Shostakovich's painful experience at the end of his life. Ms. Blaumane demonstrated a strong technique, with a good control of piano sounds and especially with loud sounds on the low strings, which can sound belchlike if you are not careful (one of the complaints often leveled against the viola). The second movement is a sort of gypsy melody, mostly in binary meter but with some disorienting metrical shifts thrown in. Mr. Zlabys is an intense player, with his face in a stressful glower and his floppy hair shaking to the rhythm. This unparalleled if gloomy concentration disappeared when he accepted the audience's applause with a broad grin. Both players, like most of the Kremerata members, are young and from the Baltic countries, and they showed an impressive sensitivity to this difficult music.

Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica Soloists, May 2, 2005As the composer explained to Fyodor Druzhinin, the violist for whom this sonata was created, "the first movement is a novella, the second is a scherzo, and the finale is an adagio in memory of Beethoven." The third movement's elegiac tone places it in line with the great Russian lament tradition (see previous posts here and here). In a beautiful and affecting way, Shostakovich evokes the sounds of the Moonlight Sonata, the triplet arpeggios and the dotted rhythm of the main theme, without really quoting it. Blaumane and Zlabys gave a luminous performance, which was dark and circumspect without being overly somber.

The second half was given over to an incredible performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 15 in A Major, op. 141. This astounding symphony, the composer's last, was premiered in Moscow in 1972. Kremer has been performing a chamber version of the Fifteenth, by Victor Derevyanko and Andrei Pushkarev, which last year Alex Ross described hearing for the first time, at a midnight concert in a German village church in 1995:

Even in its usual guise, the Fifteenth is a monumentally eerie work — Shostakovich's farewell to symphonic form, his serenade to all musical history. But in that ghostly, stripped-down version, at that hour of the night, in that remote place, it became a borderline religious experience of the kind described by William James ("giving your little private convulsive self a rest"). I remember not just the performance itself but the silence that surrounded it: a rich, resonant silence, which only deepened when I began walking in the moonlight back to the castle.
Alex's account, I admit, was the major reason why I made the trek up to Baltimore to hear Kremer's group. What we see in this work is a much more direct form of musical quotation than the mere evocation in the Viola Sonata. Making appearances are the "Lone Ranger" theme from Rossini's William Tell overture in the first movement, themes from Shostakovich's Eleventh Symphony in the second, and Wagner's death theme (for Siegmund and Siegfried) in the Ring Cycle in the fourth. This would probably be tiresome plagiarism, except for how Shostakovich weaves all of these threads from other people's shirts into something quite extraordinary and all his own. The Rossini quote, just a few bars, returns several times in the first movement, for example, mostly in the cello, providing a childlike lightheartedness as a contrast to the more somber character of the rest of the movement.

Other Articles:

Tim Smith, A haunting program at Shriver Hall: Shostakovich's ghost pays visit (Baltimore Sun, May 4)

Allan Kozinn, Shostakovich With a Twist, Including a Rearranged Symphony (New York Times, May 5), of the Carnegie Hall concert of this program

Russell Platt, Shostakovich's gloom without the grandeur (Newsday, May 6)
The full orchestral score calls for 14 different percussion instruments, so a chamber performance certainly would not be possible without the two percussionists on the program, Andrei Pushkarev and Dmytro Marchenko. (Sadly, one of them is just out of the frame of the photograph shown here, which I snapped from the second row during their curtain call.) Throughout this concert, I was amazed at the technical skills of these two players, managing a mess of instruments and mallets. At one point in the second movement, one of them plays the marimba and the timpani almost simultaneously, and the other does the same with the gong (what a sound!) behind his back. Mr. Zlabys also had to slide the celesta keyboard right alongside his piano bench, forcing his pageturner to stand for the fourth movement to make room, and he sometimes had one hand on each keyboard.

All of this one-man-bandedness added to the hallucinatory atmosphere, making up for the orchestral colors that are missing. It's true that the orchestral version of the symphony uses chamber music textures, which makes parts of the score translate easily to the smaller forces. However, I did miss the brass chorales from the Palace Square movement of the 11th symphony (reworked in the second movement) and the clarinet's madcap melody in the scherzo, both of which are carried by the piano, played so well by Mr. Zlabys but still not able to sound quite like brass or winds. Likewise, the Leningrad march from Shostakovich's 7th symphony, quoted in the final movement, cannot possible be as overwhelmingly powerful as with an orchestra. Those minor reservations aside, this was a performance of radiant beauty and surrealistic color. It was completed by an encore, in response to the enthusiastic applause, a second performance of their opener, Wustin's Prinoshenie, now functioning so perfectly as a nightcap. Judging from the smiles that shot back and forth from player to player, Gidon Kremer and his merry band relished the opportunity to play the piece again. Nothing convinces like conviction.

The 2004–2005 season at Shriver Hall concludes this Saturday (May 7 at 7:30 pm) with a free concert by marimba player Eric Beach. Next season, the Shriver Hall Concert Series celebrates its 40th anniversary, which they are calling A Season of Celebration. Highlights I have picked out from their brochure for 2005–2006 include the Takács Quartet with pianist Garrick Ohlsson (October 2, 2005), Jordi Savall and Hesperion XXI (March 19, 2006), and recitals by pianists Krystian Zimerman (April 7, 2006), Leon Fleischer (April 8, 2006), Fazil Say (April 9, 2006), and Angela Hewitt (May 14, 2006). The rest of the season looks pretty good, too.

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