Kremerata Baltica gives audience reason to smile

Gidon Kremer
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

At the end of Tuesday night's outstanding concert by Kremerata Baltica and violinist Gidon Kremer, a single question remained. What was so funny?

Rarely do you see a group of top-tier musicians enjoying themselves as much as this chamber orchestra was at Carnegie Music Hall. It didn't disrupt their playing, but at times the members were doing all they could to avoid breaking out into laughter, despite the mostly serious program. Perhaps it was because they had just played at the "other" Carnegie Hall, in New York, the night before; maybe it was because their Pittsburgh stop marked the end of a long American tour and they were headed home; or, perhaps it was because the average age of the group is 27.

The real answer probably lies with its founder, Kremer. The group doesn't just play off his name -- it has taken on his personality. He formed it, after all, in 1997 to play a few concerts around his 50th birthday and to celebrate the music of his native Latvia and the neighboring Baltic region.

Just as this maverick performer often has mixed his alternative and thoughtful interpretations with an undercurrent of sly amusement, the members of this string orchestra have taken a lighter approach to music-making. It is, after all, supposed to be entertainment. And it's not that they can't be serious. A sober yet potent rendition of the orchestrated version of Beethoven's "Grosse Fuge" that opened the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society concert showed that.

But they were having fun up there, and it made the concert experience more enjoyable. And proof of the source came on the lips of Kremer himself -- he allowed a smirk to appear several times when on stage.

So, besides being a high-spirited bunch, the young members of Kremerata Baltica have some intriguing musical qualities. These, too, seemingly reflect Kremer's aesthetics, even more than they do those of the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, from which the membership is drawn. The roughly 25 string players collectively offer a thin, expressive tone. It is an approach that allows them maximum flexibility. They tackled the spiky thrusts of the "Grosse Fuge" with admirable ensemble without a conductor. Allegro movements and forceful sections brought out the best in them, such as the outer movements of Korngold's "Symphonic Serenade" and parts of Piazzolla's "Four Seasons of Buenos Aires."

But the musicians struggled when they needed to play with a more lush timbre. An arrangement of Schumann's Cello Concerto for violin was a little dry. Kremer soloed with broad strokes and a full-bodied sound, but the orchestra couldn't match him. It was not an untoward tone, just lacking the Romantic sheen that best benefits this music.

Kremer was spectacular all night. He has a superb bow arm, but his best attribute is his mind. Through the Schumann concerto, he was constantly searching for the best way to elucidate every phrase, doing nothing by rote.

The two found much more cohesiveness in the Desyatnikov arrangement for violin and orchestra of Piazzolla's "Seasons." Here their artistic flexibility made for fascinating turns and vibrant expression of the piece's many effects, which includes some choice quotes from the Vivaldi original.

Kremerata Baltica performs with uncommon precision and ensemble. This the audience could tell. What was making them nearly crack up on stage, we may never know. But if having fun fuels their fire, pour it on.