When Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer organized Kremerata Baltica in 1997, he envisioned the chamber orchestra as a kind of summer fling.
Sixteen years earlier, Kremer, one of the world’s leading violin virtuosos, had founded an annual chamber music festival in Lockenhaus, a town in eastern Austria. He was looking for a theme for the 1997 festival and decided to focus on the music of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. He recruited gifted young musicians from those Baltic countries, with the idea that once the festival was over, the orchestra would dissolve, and the players would go back to their individual careers.
Except Kremer didn’t want to break up the band.
This season, Kremerata Baltica is traveling the world on an extensive 20th anniversary tour that wraps up in May in Asia. The orchestra appears Feb. 1 in an SCP Chamber Music Series concert, in a program of works by Arvo Part, Mieczysław Weinberg, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and contemporary Ukrainian composer Valentyn Silvestrov. The tour also celebrates Kremer, who turns 70 in late February.
“I was on the eve of celebrating my 50th birthday in 1997,” said Kremer during a phone interview from Boston, an early stop on the American leg of the anniversary tour. “Since I was born in Latvia, my first intention was to assemble musicians from the Baltics, and I made the Baltics a theme of the festival that year. I invited composers and musicians from there and intended to do an orchestra just for one summer. But when I met these young people and saw their enthusiasm and their capacity, I realized I couldn’t let it go.”
Kremer started devoting more time to nurturing Kremerata Baltica and its two dozen or so young players. After 30 years with the Lockenhaus Festival, he wrapped up his tenure there in 2011.
“I involved myself very intensely with Kremerata,” he said. “I never taught at any academy anywhere in the world, but the ensemble became an academy. The people who played in it and still play in it experienced me as a master [teacher] more than any youngsters elsewhere in the world. It became a family.”
Four of the current players have been with Kremerata since 1997 and some stay for 10 or 15 years. He regularly recruits new musicians, and the players’ average age is in the late twenties. “It’s a young orchestra,” he said, “not a youth orchestra.”
Kremer could have spent his entire career trotting the globe, playing the great violin concertos with the world’s great orchestras. Studying with the fabled virtuoso David Oistrakh in Moscow, he went on to collect first prizes in the world’s leading international violin competitions. But Kremer was never comfortable with the classical music world’s star system and is constantly looking for ways to offer audiences new insights into familiar as well as unfamiliar music.
Kremerata’s program for Chicago illustrates his approach. Mussorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition is certainly a concert staple, but it shares the program’s second half with Tchaikovsky’s less familiar Sérénade mélancolique and Silvestrov’s Serenade for Solo Violin, composed in 2009.
The real novelty is Weinberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 4, written in 1992 and the final work the composer completed before his death in 1996. (Performing with the ensemble as clarinet soloist will be be Mate Bekavac.) Born in Poland in 1919, Weinberg fled to the Soviet Union at the start of World War II. A close friend of Dmitri Shostakovich, he ran afoul of Soviet culture czars, and until recently, his music was virtually unknown in the West. Chicagoans may remember Lyric Opera’s haunting production in 2015 of Weinberg’s Holocaust opera, The Passenger, composed in 1968. Deeply atmospheric, full of color, his music displays a seamless flow that layers melting lyricism above an undercurrent of restless dissonance.
“I always am looking for things I don’t yet know,” said Kremer about his interest in Weinberg’s music. “Five years ago, I stumbled on Weinberg’s Tenth Symphony. I had played a couple of his chamber music pieces before that and I liked them a lot, but with the Tenth Symphony, I realized there was something really important. Once we started to perform it and later record it, I realized that this composer deserves much more attention than I had ever been giving him.”
Because of Weinberg’s close friendship with Shostakovich, said Kremer, some people dismiss him as merely a Shostakovich acolyte whose talent was inferior to the great Soviet-era composer’s. Kremer definitely disagrees.
“I consider Weinberg to be one of the most interesting composers of the 20th century,” he said. “I feel almost like he’s of equal strength and occasionally even more personal in his music than Shostakovich. There is a big difference between Weinberg and Shostakovich, though the idiom is occasionally similar. Weinberg doesn’t make any compromises. He’s not political, he’s not trying to stick to any school. He’s just incredibly engaged in expressing all the emotions of his tragedy, not just of himself, but of his whole generation.”
Wynne Delacoma, classical music critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1991 to 2006, is a Chicago-based arts journalist and lecturer.