Gidon & Kremerata Baltica @ Koerner Hall reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, November 5, 2010, Koerner Hall, Toronto.

The glorious acoustics of Koerner hall is a ‘volumizer’ that allows a twenty-four player chamber string orchestra to achieve the amplitude of a full orchestra with clear fidelity.

Kremerata Baltica began the evening with a stunning exploration of Bartok’s Divertimento for String Orchestra. The opening measures of the first movement are chugging locomotive chords in low register over which the violins emit a high-pitched whistle. Then follow lyrical pastoral strains succeeded by a conversation between agonized strings and the first violin that resolves into an elegiac mood. From this, a passionate drama blooms and subsides into a hushed finale.

The ‘adagio’ that follows is an undulating, dissonant flow initiated by the cellos and the second violins. This develops through a dialogue of screaming and shushes towards an eerie, controlled, throbbing utterance that drifts into a slow jazz walk to the end of the movement. The final ‘allegro’ is a toe-tapping ‘rondo’. It brings back the chugging locomotive chords raised to a thrilling fullness, a comic pizzicato section, and a climactic conclusion whose triumph is somewhat qualified by the muttering of low register strings.

The Schumann Violin Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (orig. for cello) in A minor presents a sound-scape ruled by very different geometries than the Cubist planes of Bartok’s work so angular and dissonantly coloured. This is a work built out of song-like passages with a drive derived from a sense of freshness and good humour just touched by the sublime.

Gidon Kremer enters as soloist, and though he doesn’t exactly conduct, his presence subdues the amplitude of the orchestra and we are focused on the ostentatious brilliance of his playing. The long, lyrical melodic lines, often repeated thoughout Schumann’s lengthy exposition conjure a  landscape familiar from Romantic painting. Kremer’s virtuosic bowing evokes emotional depth in the first two movements, and high spirits in lively interchange with the orchestra during the accompanied cadenza towards the end of the final ‘rondo’.

This combination of liveliness and surprising emotional depth marked the five shorter pieces by composers, mostly contemporary, that made up the second half of this well balanced program. These works happen to be from Kremerata’s new Nonesuch album, De Profundis. The title piece, a spiritual drama similar in energy to the Bartok Divertimento is by Lithuanian composer Raminta Šerkšnytė (b.1975). The drama represents a mind descending into an abyss and rising by staccato fits and starts on its journey towards transcendence. It is both odd and brilliant how well this contemporary composition pairs with Schubert’s  melancholy “Minuet in D Minor”.

Maestro Kremer holds centre stage for the Schubert and the remaining pieces including Arvo Pärt’s Passacaglia (2007). Pärt‘s work also follows well on the Schubert and dances in bow-strokes like graphite on rough paper towards an astonishing sonic explosion of string and bells from Andrei Pushkarov’s vibraphone. Gorgeous! The cleverly titled After Glenn Gould for string orchestra (2010) by Hungarian Stevan Kovacs Tickmayer wittily alternates the rich processional of polyphonic Bachian counterpoint with really weird, atonal, dissonances as anguished as anything from Bartok. Then Astor Piazolla shows in Melodia in A minor and Fuga how a funereal Argentinian tango can rise on a vibraphone gone wild into music that actually made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

The sedate Koerner Hall audience rose to its feet and went wild, were granted two encores as interesting as anything on the program: but to know about them you had to be there.

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