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Kremerata Baltica doubles down on Mieczysław Weinberg

Group photograph of the Kremerata Baltica
Group photograph of the Kremerata Baltica
courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

Due to the sudden death of his wife, bass vocalist Alexei Mochalov had to withdraw from the Kremerata Baltica tour of the United States, which began in New York on January 30 and is scheduled to continue through February 8. Mochalov was instrumental in working with Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica ensemble to prepare a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Anti-Formalist Rayok,” working from a manuscript that was only discovered after Shostakovich’s death. Without Mochalov this portion of the show could not go on; and, as a result, Kremer rearranged the second half of last night’s Great Performers Series program at Davies Symphony Hall to focus entirely on the music of Mieczysław Weinberg, the subject of the latest ECM New Series release, which presents five of Weinberg’s compositions on two CDs. The first half of the program was then rearranged to begin with an arrangement for string orchestra of Shostakovich’s Opus 134 violin sonata by violinist Michael Zinman, to which Andrei Pushkarev subsequently added a percussion part at Zinman’s request. This was then followed by Benjamin Britten’s Opus 10 set of variations on a theme by his teacher, Frank Bridge.

The second half of the program began with Weinberg’s tenth symphony (Opus 98) composed in 1968. This was the replacement for “Anti-Formalist Rayok;” and it is the major work on the new ECM recording. However, because it was a last-minute replacement, there was no information about it in the program book. (The program change was announced from the stage and mentioned only that the work is in five movements.)

This was unfortunate, since even having the movement descriptions would have been useful. Through those descriptions, one would have recognized at least some of the wit that Weinberg engaged in composing this symphony. The movements are labeled according to traditional stylistic genres:

  1. Concerto grosso
  2. Pastorale
  3. Canzone
  4. Burlesque
  5. Inversion

The concerto grosso calls for solo passages for violin, viola, and cello but then takes a prankish approach to adding a double bass to the mix. The final movement, on the other hand, may well have been inspired by the music of Béla Bartók, a composer who became famous (notorious?) for taking almost every one of his themes and finding a way to rework it in inversion. After playing that game, Weinberg then revisits the opening themes of the entire symphony (in reverse order) to wrap up his “stylistic stew” in a neat package.

Kremer led his Kremerata Baltica in a vigorous account of this symphony. The solo instrumental work extended beyond the opening movement and involved some particularly expressive cello work by Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė. Nevertheless, the composition was a long one; and the lack of any assistance for listeners encountering this music for the first time was regrettable (even if it was unavoidable).

More accessible at face value was the second Weinberg selection (originally scheduled to begin the evening), his Opus 42 concertino for violin and strings. This involved a more straightforward approach to thematic content, as well as a highly expressive cadenza leading into the second of its three movements. Kremer offered up an engaging account which did much to “clear the air” after the far more elaborate Opus 98 symphony.

The Shostakovich sonata was originally composed, in the fall of 1968, as a 60th birthday present for David Oistrakh. By 1968 Shostakovich had recovered (to the best of his abilities) from his travails under the oppression of Stalinist rule in Soviet Russia. The sonata provided him with opportunities to explore new approaches to composition (including serial methods) without giving up on many of the traditional techniques that had served him well in the past. Zinman’s arrangement provided an informed translation of the accompaniment from piano to string ensemble, while Pushkarev’s percussion offered up a clever nod to some of the more prankish elements of early Shostakovich rhetoric. Kremer’s energetic approach as both soloist and leader made for an upbeat beginning for the evening.

The Britten variations were then given a spirited account with Džeraldas Bidva leading from the concertmaster’s chair. Since each of the variations provides a witty take on a familiar stylistic genre, Britten’s Opus 10 provided useful “rhetorical orientation” for the approach that Weinberg took to his Opus 98 symphony, which followed after the intermission. Kremerata Baltica gave a zesty account of Britten’s humor, which alternated between subtle and overt.

The full evening turned out to be a long program. However, Kremer offered up one final sample of Weinberg as an encore. This was a brief and high-spirited polka that nicely complemented the more sublime rhetoric of the Opus 42 concertino. The music was composed for the soundtrack of a cartoon entitled "Bonifatsy's Holidays."

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