Gidon Kremer: Defining an Ideal in Performance

I don't use this space for the purpose of reviewing artists or performances -- that isn't the reason I choose to blog. However, every once in a while you encounter an artist who defines such an ideal about what the performance of music ought to be that it is not possible, for me at least, to just let it pass. I had such an experience in July at the New Hampshire Music Festival (in Plymouth), when Gidon Kremer appeared.

Kremer has of course been one of the most important violinists and musicians in the world, and it is hardly a lightning bolt of inspiration or originality for me to point that out. But his performances of the Sibelius Violin Concerto and Giya Kancheli's Silent Prayer, a work written to honor Kremer on his 60th birthday and Mstislav Rostropovich on his 80th -- sadly, the great cellist died before the piece was completed -- were so immensely powerful in their individual (and often quiet) ways that I found myself re-playing them in my head for days afterward. That doesn't happen very often, so it led me to wonder just what it is about Kremer's art that makes it as special as it is -- and what distinguishes him from so many other well-known violinists.

It struck me that his playing represented an ideal for me. Not that I believe in any one specific interpretation as the "correct" one, for I do not; in fact, I believe that interpretive variety and differences are an extremely important part of the live concert experience.  No, what is "ideal" about Kremer's playing is, first of all, the sense of deep conviction and intensity that is a consistent presence in all he does. Never, in all the years I have been hearing him, have I encountered a casual or "phoned-in" performance, or one that was even remotely routine. That may sound like something you expect from all artists, but in fact there are very few who are never, ever guilty of that.  

What Kremer plays is thoroughly thought out -- every bar is conceived in relation to what went before and what is coming after -- yet it sounds as if he's improvising it on the spot. It is impossible for an audience not to be completely drawn in, caught up in the moment, in a way that should happen whenever music is made, but sadly doesn't.  I remember my frustration in my years managing the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when a well-meaning patron would talk about how wonderful the experience was of coming to a concert after a hard day at the office and just "letting the music wash over me, and relax me."  Most of the music that we care about should, in fact, do more than relax the listener -- and I would guess that it is not possible to ever completely relax at a Gidon Kremer performance.

Part of this is because he is not afraid to surprise. A surprising view of dynamics, of turns of phrase, of tempo changes or relationships, a new way of hearing a particular passage -- all of these things are constants with Kremer. Also constant is the internal and deeply personal nature of his playing: You never feel that it is playing for the sake of display, although he has a technique that would enable him to be a show-off if he chose. He seems instead to be communing with the composer, exploring the composer's world for you and for himself. He has more shades of piano and pianissimo than just about any musician I know. This adds endless variety to his performances, and it also serves to draw the listener in, to fully get your attention.  Speakers are often advised that the way to quiet a noisy crowd is not to shout at them, but to start speaking very, very softly. That becomes a magnet for attention. So it is with Kremer's playing. In the end, what makes it special is how deeply personal his playing is, every time he plays. You never feel that this is a musician who is fulfilling a contractual commitment to perform. Rather he is sharing his deepest thoughts about the music with those fortunate enough to be present.

When you add to these traits his musical curiosity, the variety of what he plays (and conducts with his chamber ensemble, Kremerata Baltica), his devotion to composers like Kancheli, the extreme variety of tone color and vibrato that he applies to everything, you come up with an artist who, in my view, represents everything that is great in the music we love. Having experienced it so vividly in New Hampshire, I couldn't resist sharing the experience here.

September 5, 2008 3:22 PM | | Comments (1)



I too was at the NH concert and found the experience amazing. Gidon is a friend of a friend and we have met him twice personally and i would just add that he is a marvelous, friendly, warm, delightful person, as interested in us as we were in him. i would also add that after hearing Pincus Zuckerman play in Pittsburgh many years ago on what seemed to be not just automatic pilot with boredom, but with disinterest in and even perhaps disdain for the audience and their response, i decided i would avoid his performances in the future and have done so. in other words, you're exactly right. thanks....


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