Strings Attached

In a world overpopulated by fiddling moppets – dimpled teen and subteen virtuosos who wow the crowds with Bruch and Wieniawski concertos for a couple of years and then disappear into the woodwork – 51-year-old Gidon Kremer stands as honored patriarch. More to the point, he stands as one of the supreme musicians of our time, a performer not only awesomely talented but also extraordinarily cognizant of the responsibilities that befall a world-class artist. For every hundred musicians you can name who use the resources of the repertory to further their fame, there may be one or two at best who use their fame to further the resources of the repertory. Kremer is of that number. Huge chunks of contemporary music, works by the likes of Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina and Arvo Part – not to mention John Adams – owe their current wide circulation to Kremer’s ardent championing.

He came to town last week along with KREMERata BALTICA, the 26-member ensemble of smart-looking young string players from his native Latvia and the neighboring Lithuania and Estonia, which he founded in 1996. The group touched down at the Hollywood Bowl for its U.S. debut, initiating a trajectory that also included performances in San Francisco and at Manhattan’s Mostly Mozart festival. The program, while not at all Mozartian, did touch on points of Kremer’s own involvement: Estonian composer Part’s ethereal Fratres, and the legacy of tangos by Argentina’s Astor Piazzolla, which blend the throb of that smoky dance into subtle and emotional original creations (and which Kremer has lately recorded extensively on Nonesuch). Music by two contrasting Italians – Vivaldi’s evergreen The Four Seasons and the Concerto for Strings by film composer Nino Rota – filled out the rewarding evening.

It’s possible that another small ensemble pleading the Vivaldian cause isn’t what the world most needs right now, but Kremer’s musicians won over their first American audience – 4,150 strong and obviously eager to applaud practically at every page turn – with playing full of imagination and snap. Even through the Bowl’s notoriously iffy amplification, the sound was sleek and nicely balanced. It’s hard to imagine a time when the record-collecting world had no Four Seasons (or much else by Vivaldi), but there was such a time; I helped produce the first American record release in 1947, an Italian re-orchestration by Bernardino Molinari, slurpy and sloppy, on the Cetra label. Now we are oversupplied – a column and a half of fine print in the latest Schwann Catalog – and this wonderful, fragile music suffers from absurd “personalizing” attempts: jazz ver-sions, piano transcriptions, in-your-face onslaughts from the likes of Nigel Kennedy and worse. Kremer and his lively band found an admirable middle ground: a performance flexible in tempo, responsive to the music’s delirious escapades – the soulful birdsongs and a thunderstorm that was actually scary – yet respectful of the 273-year stylistic gap.

Rota’s zippy little String Concerto came off as a charmer, full of the slithery harmonies of his scores for Fellini’s greatest films, and worthy to stand on its own on a concert stage. A suite of Piazzolla tangos, arranged for strings by Leonid Desyatnikov and thus lacking the down-‘n’-dirty sound of the composer’s own indigenous tango orchestra, pleased the crowd even so. So did the encore, one more small Piazzolla masterpiece called “The Shark,” toothsome, pearly white and biting.

My words about Jon Nakamatsu at his local debut (at El Camino College) last October, that his only so-so recital suggested that he bore the same curse as all previous Van Cliburn International Piano Competition winners, brought the expected quadrennial yawp of protest from the Cliburn management (published on our Letters page, as was the one four years before). I have nothing new to add, however. At the Bowl last week, Nakamatsu performed Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto, music miles superior to the Rach 3 but still not a piece that plays itself. The technique was excellent, the articulation so clean that you could have taken the piece down by dictation. But that’s as far as it went: all of the notes, with less of the force that binds one to the next. I happen to like this concerto; of all the romantic junk repertory it’s the one that can still give me shivers. I have the feeling, in fact, that I like the work more than Nakamatsu does.

Marin Alsop, music director of the Colorado Symphony, conducted, another in that exalted roster (along with Kremer) of serious battlers in the cause of new music. She managed to keep alongside Nakamatsu in the Rachmaninoff, but had a lot more to say on her own in the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony that ended the evening. Like the aforementioned Vivaldi, this overplayed work has been allowed to slide onto the warhorse heap in the hands of lesser conductors unencumbered with much respect for its content. There’s plenty in the work of the good ol’ bring-down-the-house stuff: the great noisy climax in the first movement, the nose-thumbing in the scherzo, the brassy bing-bang-boom in the finale. When the noble Kurt Sanderling was a frequent Philharmonic guest conductor in the 1980s, he gave a performance of the Fifth so deep and stirring that it really seemed to turn the work around. Alsop’s reading had some of that, and it made for an eloquent, memorable performance, full of dark and subtle shadows and, in the slow movement, particularly successful in underscoring the young Shostakovich’s acknowledged debt to Mahler. She’s a conductor worth watching, and she made the overworked Shostakovich Fifth a symphony once again worth hearing.

A curious evening indeed, last Friday at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex of Cal State L.A. The program listed a “Taiwanese Music and Art Festival.” The music was by one Maurice Weddington, an African-American composer now living in Berlin, some of it inspired by ancient scrolls from mainland China. The performers included two Taiwanese dancers, but the music was played by the Ensemble Oriol, also from Berlin, whose entire American tour consisted of this one per-formance plus one other, a straightforward pops program at Cal State Northridge. The Taiwanese identity was nailed down to some extent, however, by letters of greeting in the program, one from the mayor of Taipei and the other from that old Taiwan apologist and one-time Chiang Kai-shek dinner companion, former Congressman Edward Roybal.

Weddington’s music included two extended works with their related scrolls (photographed in black and white) unrolling on a screen above the players, and four shorter works with, alas, less to offer in the way of needed distraction. Much of the music seemed to draw its strength from solo wind instruments deliberately overblown, one of life’s least ingratiating sounds. One piece called Nebulae did approach pleasantness at times: a solo not for screeching flute or squawking clarinet, but for musette, a toy oboe. As so often in life, less was decidedly more.