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Dreams of Desolation and Joy

New York
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center Complex
11/11/2010 -  
White Light Festival: Silent Prayer
Lera Auerbach: Sogno di Stabat Mater (Dream of Stabat Mater) (New York premiere)
Giya Kancheli: Silent Prayer (New York premiere)
Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op.131 (Arranged for String Orchestra by Victor Kissine and Gidon Kremer)

Ula Ulijona (Viola), Giedre Dirvanauskaute (Cello), Andrei Pushkarev (Percussion)
Kremerata Baltica: Gidon Kremer (Violin and Leader)

G. Kremer (© Knud Rauff)

Lincoln Center’s first “White Light Festival” is hardly a slogan. The program is packed with articles about turning music into spirituality, the science of transcendence, and appropriate poetry. In fact, Rainer Marie Rilke’s translated “To Music” was as appropriate for Gidon’ Kremer’s “Silent Prayers” as George Herbert’s metaphysical poem was for the Tallis Scholars “Credo” last week.

Of course nobody can box in the multiple personae of Gidon Kremer. Yes, this Latvian-born artist is one of the most vital violinists in the world for all the usual classics. But he is a humorist as well (his variations on “Happy Birthday” are little jewels). Mr. Kremer’s celebration of post-Soviet composers is essential to contemporary music, and the eponymous “Kremerata Baltica” string orchestra he brought to Alice Tully Hall, made up of 24 Latvian, Estonian and Lithuanian strings and one percussionist, share in Mr. Kremer’s exuberance and discovery.

Their trio of works last night, with two singular encores, was typical. Two were New York premieres, by Lera Auerbach and Giya Kancheli. The last was by Beethoven, with a difference.

Inevitably, one had to compare Mr. Auerbach’s “dream” of Pergolesi’s great Stabat Mater with Philip Glass’s dream of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons Wednesday evening. The latter was a party piece–a gorgeous, clever patina of Baroque rhythms and harmonies, references to seasons and even a quote or two from Vivaldi. The legerdemain was (in Graham Greene’s words) “an entertainment.”

Ms. Auerbach dealt with a Neapolitan composer who overlapped the Venetian, but her goal was far more complex and more challenging. About half the work quoted Pergolesi in various forms. Kremer and violist Ula Ulijona played solos from the choral work, with dissonances overlapping each other with a solo vibraphone like a ritornello in the background. The style was Late Baroque, and the treble instruments–sometimes in harmonics, sometimes in aching pure melodies–were ideal replacements for the women’s chorus of the original Stabat Mater.

The string orchestra accompanied or augmented, but retained the mood of the its soloists. The work was desolate, but with the richness of an Italian cathedral. But so much material, from Pergolesi and Auerbach, was contained that, like all dreams, it seemed far longer than its supposed twelve minutes.

The work was new to New York, but with the 18th Century background, one didn’t feel any alienation from the context. That was not quite true in Giya Kanceli’s Silent Prayer.. Originally it was dedicated to Mr. Kremer and Mstislav Rostropovich on their 60th and 80th birthdays. With the death of the cellist a year later, Kancheli rewrote the work expressing more personal grief.

Like all Kancheli’s music, it relishes in sudden silences, explosive loud chords, s-l-o-w passages which abruptly whirl frenetically. While this could disconcert some listeners, Silent Prayer did have two familiar meeting points. One was a repeated series of very tonal scales ascending and descending, played with all the shimmer which the Kremerata Baltica can summon up.

Second was the haunting voice of a girl, singing a mournful song in the Georgian language. This had been pre-recorded and was very affecting. Shamefully, no credit is given her in the program. Mr. Kremer, so progressive in his views, will doubtless rectify this in future concerts.

A relatively long work, the Kancheli was structurally obtuse on first hearing, but the sections themselves were easily accessible, and the Kancheli inspiration, jumping from simple melodies to fierce chords, was always fascinating.

Ironically, the most controversial work was Beethoven’s final string quartet, Opus 131, arranged for string orchestra by Russian composer Victor Kissine and Mr. Kremer himself. Sitting in the concertmaster’s chair, the violinist led the string orchestra in all seven movements without a break, giving an original structural feel to the work.

But of course Beethoven never wrote anything for string orchestra, and his string quartets are as unfit for re-orchestrating as Bach’s Suite was gloomily re-orchestrated by Mahler.

Nothing was gloomy here, but the first movements sounded far more like Tchaikovsky than Beethoven. No, let me revise this. The opening fugue, played by the first chair players, joined by the orchestra, was stark, mysterious, and played with the greatest depth by the superb strings of Mr. Kremer’s orchestra. After this, we had movements of finesse and elegance. Beethoven would have recognized the notes and appreciated the playing. Yet it is questionable whether he would be familiar with the mood.

Yes, Messrs Kissine and Kremer had a far most expansive palette for sonic color, ranging from solo players to full ensemble, to a combination of the two, verging on elements of a concerto grosso. The main colors, though, came from pleasant gardens rather than the forests of the mind.

The last movements finally gave the explosive bounce to Beethoven (some of the bounces with the suddenness of Kancheli’s music). It was crowd-pleaser, leading to two very unique encores. One was the Piazzolla Fuga, where percussionist Andrei Pushkarev came out from the background with six mallets, one vibraphone, and the most astonishing technique with the orchestra.

For the second encore the instruments were put away, and the entire orchestra launched into a vocal…er, perhaps not vocal but singing and sounding…okay, we’ll use Ernst Toch’s words, a “spoken chorus” called Geographical Fugue. My Toronto colleague, Michael Johnson, describes it as a “shouting chorus”, but everybody had such a good time hollering, singing and waving –in perfect pitch– that some listeners (alas!) blocked out the mystical dreams which started this White Night ritual of color and joy.

Harry Rolnick



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