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Sunday, March 10, 2013

Russian Seasoned

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Last month, the Tokyo String Quartet made a stop in Troy on its farewell tour, and one of the pieces the performed was written for them by the Russian-American composer Lera Auerbach. Here’s a link to my review of that concert. It reminded me of a concert over a decade ago, when Auerbach visited the area with Gidon Kremer’s ensemble. Update: A review of the same concert that I wrote for appears at the end. 


BETWEEN CONCERTS IN CHICAGO and Manhattan, Gidon Kremer and his virtuoso string orchestra made a stop in Schenectady. They don’t get much more world class than this group, yet it’s pretty much the norm for the Union College Concert Series, which has presented this level of talent for 30 years.

Julia Korpacheva, soprano, with Kremerata
Baltica at Union College, 28 April 2002.
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Although he’s one of the world’s top violinists, Kremer prefers the role of iconoclast to icon. He plays the standard repertory, but you’re more likely to find him behind a new work – probably one that he commissioned. During the past few years he has celebrated the music of Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla with concerts and a series of recordings; he is also closely allied with the music of Schnittke, Vasks, Pärt, Adams and others.

He formed Kremerata Baltica in 1997 to bring together talented string players from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Rehearsals are reputed to be lengthy and exhausting, but the results, to judge from last Sunday’s concert, are amazing. The big familiar work on the program was Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence,” written for string sextet but so bursting at the seams that it worked just as well in a version for string orchestra.

All the evidence you needed of the ensemble’s accomplishment was there to see: They breathe together. They watch one another. In the more emotionally charged moments, they don’t have to watch one another – they’re synchronized through passion.

If Tchaikovsky was the crowd-pleaser, the first three works provided much more intellectual and emotional provocation. Arvo Pärt’s “Orient & Occident,” the 1999-vintage piece that opened the concert, was a brief, plaintive study in harmony and silence, taking the conductorless ensemble through a textural transformation that was moving and effective.

Leonid Desyatnikov’s “Russian Seasons” for violin, soprano and string orchestra is also not much more than two years old. Desyatnikov helped Kremer put together a recording pairing the seasons of Vivaldi and Piazzolla, and no doubt drew inspiration from that occasion. And you can’t musically portray those seasons without the shadow of Vivaldi hanging over you, so Desyatnikov’s piece begins with the rising third and rhythmic bounce of Vivaldi’s opening, but quickly inhabits a musical language of its own.

Soprano Julia Korpacheva sang the Russian texts; translations weren’t available, but the occasional “cuckoo” assured us that something nature-related was in the air – and conveyed with a deep timbre and impressive fullness of tone. Kremer played the challenging solo violin part, reminding us (as if we needed it) that he has amazing chops. A duet passage with the bass section in the beginning of the second section was nicely shaded, although Kremer’s tone tends to grow shrill when he’s hard at work.

The newest work on the program, Lera Auerbach’s Suite for Violin, Piano and Strings, was written last year for this ensemble. The composer herself played the solo piano part, and if that weren’t enough of a talent threat, we were reminded in the program that she’s also an award-winning poet.

With a high-minded inspiration (nothing less than “Cycles of Life”), Auerbach’s suite combined a plangent but diatonic musical language with Rachmaninoff-like excesses of romanticism – an effective combo when you’re dealing with heavy issues. The interplay between solo violin and piano was extremely accomplished, and her use of the orchestra was similarly outstanding. And she’s not afraid of melody, whether in the Mozartean lilt of the second movement or the haunting lullaby that concludes the piece.

Classical music is a dead issue when living composers are left behind; Kremer and his group reminded us that, when chosen and played by the best, this kind of music continues to live and breathe and change our lives.

Kremerata Baltica with Gidon Kremer, violinist;
Julia Korpacheva, soprano; and Lera Auerbach, composer-pianist.

Union College Memorial Chapel, April 28, 2002

Metroland Magazine, 2 May 2002


Kremerata Baltica Gives Lush Reading of New Works
Union College Memorial Chapel, Schenectady, NY; April 28, 2002

When Gidon Kremer commissions or champions a work, it’s probably going to be worth hearing. The three new (or relatively new) works on the program presented by his string orchestra, Kremerata Baltica, offered contrasting styles within fairly diatonic frameworks. And the newest work, Lera Auerbach’s Suite for Violin, Piano, and Strings, was a virtuoso showcase for violinist Kremer and pianist Auerbach as well as impressive testimony to the talent of this not-yet-30-year-old composer.

The work premiered last summer at Kremer’s Lockenhaus Festival, and is described by the composer as part of the “dialogue between a man whose physical existence is finite and the energies that surround him which are infinite ... and, perhaps, influence each other.” As if that’s not heady enough, the material is drawn from three cycles of twenty-four preludes written by Auerbach a year earlier, thus inspiring a fast trip through all the major and minor tonalities during the Suite’s finale.

Brief melodic fragments alternated with passages of lush melody in the opening, although the work maintains an unsettling character throughout. The short second movement, marked Con Spirito, is a Mozartean gavotte with added clangor and an abrupt, witty ending; it’s followed by a movement titled “The Unreachable,” which almost takes us to Rachmaninoff land. An edge of emotional austerity holds us back, but it’s still enjoyable – big, thickly textured writing that embraces Romantic tradition in a modern voice.

Violin and piano achieve a nice partnership here, further explored in the lullaby mood that brackets the final movement (“Toccata of Life and the Silence of the Past”). Orchestral support was superb throughout, with section leaders (and others) often called upon to add solo voices.

Composer Leonid Desyatnikov is a longtime Kremer associate, having arranged many of the Piazzolla works Kremer has performed and recorded recently; Desyatnikov also is known in his native Russia for his film music. His “Russian Seasons,” for violin, soprano, and string orchestra, was written in 2000 and begins with a subtle homage to Vivaldi before moving on to a purpose and style of its own.

Soprano Julia Korpacheva frequently was called upon to sing a cappella, which displayed a creamy, well-rounded voice with a bit of a mezzo edge. When she blended with the ensemble the sound was particularly effective, enhanced by the splendid acoustics in Union College’s Memorial Chapel.

While a strong Shostakovich influence is evident in Desyatnikov’s work, the jazzy fast movements recalled Martinů at his merriest. His “Seasons” is an easy-to-take piece that was very well received.

The program opened with Arvo Pärt’s “Orient & Occident for String Orchestra,” a three-year-old piece with a chaconne-like feel, syncopated by the composer’s generous use of pauses. The harmonic language shimmered between unison playing and triadic intervals, all beautifully played by the conductorless orchestra.

Once again sans conductor, they finished the concert with an arrangement for string orchestra of Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence” sextet, a heart-on-its-sleeve piece that works quite nicely in the enlarged version. Again, it turned into a showpiece for this top-flight ensemble.

Kremer returned to encore with Piazzolla’s moody “Oblivion.”, May 2002

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