Kremer’s Ensemble Honors Peers In Shostakovich Orbit

Violinist Gidon Kremer is paying tribute to Dmitri Shostakovich and Mieczyslaw Weinberg with Ensemble Baltica.  (Photo by Andreas Malkmus)
Gidon Kremer’s ensemble, Kremerata Baltica, will play music of  Shostakovich’s forgotten friend Mieczysław Weinberg.
(Photo by Andreas Malkmus-ECM Records)
By Rick Schultz

“It is good to have friends,” the Spanish proverb goes, “even in hell.” Maybe especially in hell, as the long friendship between Dmitri Shostakovich and Mieczysław Weinberg, the Polish-born Soviet composer, confirmed. The bond between the two composers not only helped them endure the ubiquitous fear and brutality of Stalin’s totalitarian regime. It also helped them thrive artistically while working under the worst conditions.

Gidon Kremer in rehearsal. (Andreas Malkmus)
Gidon Kremer in rehearsal. (Andreas Malkmus)

Violinist Gidon Kremer and his chamber orchestra, Kremerata Baltica, which is celebrating its seventeenth anniversary in February, will be honoring musical friendships on their North America tour.  The first stop is Jan. 30 at Kaufmann Concert Hall in New York, with subsequent performances in San Francisco, Houston, Ann Arbor, and Chicago. The tour ends in St. Paul Feb. 8.

“Shostakovich is the center, surrounded by his closest associates – Benjamin Britten and Weinberg,” Kremer said recently by phone from Italy.  “I wanted to pay homage to these friendships. I always say generosity makes a big artist. Weinberg’s widow recently told me that Shostakovich would be very happy if he saw Weinberg’s music being discovered. He always supported him, and recommended his pieces to orchestras.”

Kremer’s two programs feature Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, which honors yet another friendship, since Bridge was Britten’s teacher. Arvo Pärt, who dedicated his 1977 score Tabula Rasa to Kremer, is represented by Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten for string orchestra and bell, which is scheduled on the New York and Ann Arbor programs.

Dmitri Shostakovich and Mieczyslaw Weinberg.
Composers Dmitri Shostakovich and Mieczysław Weinberg were friends and colleagues.

Even Shostakovich’s substantial Sonata for Violin and Piano, orchestrated for violin, strings, and percussion, reflects deep friendships: it was dedicated to David Oistrakh, Kremer’s teacher, who premiered the piece in 1969.

Shostakovich’s satirical Anti-Formalist Rayok, which lampoons the malicious stupidity of Soviet bureaucrats, is on both programs. “The text is very funny,” Kremer said, “but the widow of Shostakovich recently told me that it was not meant to be performed. It was written for friends, maybe for himself.”  Kremer added that the orchestra is using the original version of the chamber score for one singer instead of four.

But  the engine driving Kremerata Baltica’s latest tour is Weinberg’s 1948 Concertino for violin and string orchestra, and especially his Symphony No. 10 for string orchestra from 1968.  “Weinberg’s  Symphony is a milestone in the work of Kremerata Baltica,” said Kremer, who is also the orchestra’s concertmaster in its performances of the symphony. “It must have been a milestone in Weinberg’s work as well. It was written one year before Shostakovich wrote his 14th Symphony, and Shostakovich was influenced by this work.”

Kremer called the turbulent score an atypical piece for Weinberg. “He was known as a lyricist – a master of melody, of almost romantic music,” Kremer said. “Here he reaches such a height of drama, but I don’t know if it’s despair. Certainly you can feel enormous tension, not only in the dramatic last movement, but also in the slower Canzona.”

Kremerata Baltica, music of Weinberg, ECMFor music lovers  not on Kremerata’s concert tour route, Weinberg’s emotionally epic Symphony can be heard in a performance by the ensemble on ECM’s two-CD portrait of the composer, due in February, which includes Kremer’s searing rendition of Weinberg’s inexplicably neglected Sonata No. 3 for violin solo from 1979. A description of  the score by Kremer in the booklet notes has this about the last section: “`Dialogue with Eternity:’ pallid sounds without constant rhythmic accentuation, unreal pizzicatos, vanishing tone.'”

Kremer said Weinberg’s sonata became as important to him as Bartók’s 1944 Sonata for Solo Violin. “Lately I’m trying to avoid learning new, huge, very complex pieces,” said Kremer, who is 66. “I have already played so much music in my life that I’m trying to focus myself on something that is more transparent. But in this case, I immediately sensed how complex it is, and still couldn’t resist to learn it. There are not so many great pieces for solo violin of this quality.”

Weinberg, born in 1919 in Warsaw, lost his parents and sister in the Holocaust and eventually made his way to Moscow in 1943, with the help of Shostakovich. Though Shostakovich had been denounced by Soviet authorities, his  Symphony No. 5 “rehabilitated” him, and he was famous enough to pull political strings. He liked Weinberg’s First Symphony and saw his potential.  

Over the next decades, Shostakovich became Weinberg’s colleague and protector, risking his own life by intervening when Weinberg was arrested in 1953 on the charge of “Jewish bourgeois nationalism.” The situation was so dire that Shostakovich and his wife, fearing he would be executed, signed adoption papers for Weinberg’s daughter.

A scene from the Houston production of Weinberg's "The Passenger." (Lynn Lane)
A scene from Houston’s production of ‘The Passenger.’ (Lynn Lane)

After reading Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz’s 1959 radio play, Passenger from Cabin Number 45, Shostakovich encouraged Weinberg to adapt it as an opera. On Jan. 18, The Passenger received its U.S. premiere by Houston Grand Opera. It runs through Feb. 2, with the New York premiere scheduled for the Park Avenue Armory on July 10 as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. In the opera, Liese, a former SS overseer on a ship to Brazil, becomes frightened when she sees Marta, who looks like a prisoner she tormented at Auschwitz 15 years earlier.

“Weinberg’s life was insane,” said Mena Mark Hanna, Houston Grand Opera’s dramaturg. “It encapsulates the plight of European Jews in the 20th century. The incessant hounding and persecution, first at the hand of Hitler and then under the brutality of Stalin. It’s almost like he never had a moment to breathe.” According to Hanna, though Weinberg’s output includes six operas, 22 symphonies, 17 string quartets, and 66 film scores, the composer claimed The Passenger as the most important piece he ever wrote. Like the recent film 12 Years a Slave, The Passenger takes on a harrowing subject in an uncompromising way. Hanna noted that the few Holocaust works conceived for theater or opera use metaphor or, like Hans Krása’s Brundibár, elements of fairy tale, to tell its story.

“The difference,” Hanna said, “is that The Passenger attempts to directly confront the grotesque horror of Auschwitz and the Holocaust.”

ARC Ensemble, On the Threshold of Hope, music of Weinberg (Sony Masterworks)Weinberg could be just as gripping in chamber music. Prior to each of the three New York performances of The Passenger, the enterprising ARC Ensemble (Artists of the Royal Conservatory, Toronto) will perform a selection of Weinberg’s finest chamber works, including his Piano Trio, Op. 24, Cello Sonata No 2, Violin Sonata No. 1 and Piano Quintet. The Piano Quintet is a highlight of the ARC’s 2006 RCA recording, which includes superb accounts of Weinberg’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano and Jewish Songs (Op. 17), set to Yiddish poems by Shmuel Halkin.

“Weinberg was considered among many people of my generation as a secondary Shostakovich, which he certainly is not,” Kremer said. “His personality and signature can be distinguished. He used a lot of Shostakovich’s idioms, but they exchanged ideas. It would be absolutely wrong to say Weinberg was a pupil and follower of Shostakovich. They met in the imagination and both were wonderful.”

Kremer said he recently toured Weinberg’s Sonata No. 5 for Violin and Piano (1953) with pianist Martha Argerich and discovered that the main theme in the final movement recalled a theme in the last movement of Shostakovich’s 15th Symphony from 1971. “So Shostakovich paid homage in some of his works to Weinberg,” Kremer said.

For Kremer, the enlivening quality of friendship and music is what the Kremerata tour is all about. “When I’m extremely tired and exhausted, if I turn to a wonderful score, I am suddenly awakened and fully aware of the positive energy music gives to each of us,” Kremer said. “So what I can do for music, music does for me as well. This is a fair exchange.”

Rick Schultz writes about classical music for The Los Angeles Times and The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.