By R.M. Campbell
The Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s Visiting Orchestra Series may be somewhat diminished this season but its opening gesture Friday night at Benaroya Hall was anything but that.
When Kremerata Baltica made its local debut a few years ago, it created a powerful impression for its finesse and technical acuity. Nothing has changed in the intervening years, as demonstrated this weekend. This string orchestra of some two dozen young musicians, gathered from the various Baltic states, is still sharp-edged with transparent textures, impeccable ensemble and handsome sound. Everything about the group is a pleasure as well as informed and articulate. It is modern in all sorts of ways, the best sort of ways. This is an orchestra that knows how to play pianissimo, one so focused it sails across the footlights.
The superb Gidon Kremer, born in Latvia, is a violinist with an international career and reputation. He is known for his high intelligence, smooth technical facility and high degree of musicianship. Also his independence from the mainstream when he chooses.
Such is the Kremerata Baltica, which he formed in 1997, as a vehicle for all the musical talent in his native country as well as Estonia and Lithuania. The orchestra gives about 60 concerts a year with many tours in Europe and the Americas. It appears regularly at major European festivals and performs with leading soloists, both European and American. It has recorded for Nonesuch Records and Deutsche Grammophon. Its most current is “De Profundis,” ranging from Schubert to Arvo Part, some of which made its way to the Seattle program. The ensemble is particularly interested in recording music of living composers from Eastern Europe.
Much of the music on the program calls for violin soloist but not all. Each half began for orchestra alone — Bartok’s Divertimento and Raminta Serksnyte’s “De Profundis.” For those, the orchestra played without benefit of a conductor. He was not missed. The young, able musicians did very well on their own, with only the occasional nod from the concertmaster. There was no question of where they were going, but the reading never appeared stilted or worn. They could give the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which has done away with any conductor, a run for its money. For the second half of the concert, first desk players in both violin sections and cello switched places. The Bartok had a slight edge, clear resonance and musical warmth. So too the Serksnyte, which is quite different in tone and approach. The latter is neo-Romanic in style and appeal. The young, woman composer was born in Lithuania in 1975.
The only work on the program that was not so successful was a transcription of Schumann’s Cello Concerto for violin. The cello concerto is one of the staples of the cello repertory and played by every cellist of any note in the world. Although the composer arranged a version for violin, a gift to the great 19th-century violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim, the one heard Friday was a transcription by Rene Koering. It is so different from the familiar cello concerto that it seemed on occasion an entirely different work, with the violin lost in the instrumental mix. I am not sure the point of the exercise. The genius of what Schumann wrote for the cello is simply lost on the violin. Alas.
The second half was a little confusing. Just before it began, there was an announcement of a program change. But just what those changes were got lost in unfamiliar names. There was still Schubert’s little bit of magic — the D Minor Minuet from his “Five Minuets and Six Trios” (D. 89) — handsomely played with Kremer taking the solo role. Its reading had expressive nuance and sweetly inflected romanticism. Everything that followed was performed without pause. It was intriguing with a little sense of wonder and enchantment thrown in. The Part — his Passacagia — was beautiful and serene and the pair of Piazzolla pieces, which ended the formal program, had the right inflections but with an individuality that belonged entirely to Kremerata Baltica.
In addition to Kremer’s solo sides, there was vibraphonist Andrei Pushkarev, who wove his own brilliance and tonal appeal into the mix. The audience went crazy. For once, the standing ovation was deserved.