Violinist Gidon Kremer
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Gidon Kremer was born in Riga
(Latvia) in 1947, the only child of parents of German origin. After
receiving his first musical instruction at home - both father and
grandfather were professional violinists - he studied at the Riga
School of Music and then at the Moscow Conservatory under David
Oistrakh. Kremer enjoyed notable success at competitions in Brussels
(1967), Montreal and Genoa (1969), and Moscow (1970). After extended
tours through the former Soviet Union, he began appearing with
increasing frequency in the West. His first concert in Germany came in
1975, followed by debuts at the Salzburg Festival (1976) and in New
York (1977). Gidon Kremer was also one of the artistic directors of the
music festival "Art Projekt '92" in Munich.
The international chamber music festival in Lockenhaus (Austria),
founded by Gidon Kremer in 1981, has been a forum for young artists to
present challenging and innovative chamber music concerts - programmes
which are also taken on tour. In 1992 the festival in Lockenhaus was
named "KREMERata MUSICA". In 1996 Gidon Kremer founded the KREMERata
BALTICA chamber orchestra to foster outstanding young musicians from
the three Baltic states. He undertakes regular concert tours with this
orchestra. Gidon Kremer is also Director of the Musiksommer Gstaad
Gidon Kremer's repertoire ranges from the Baroque to works by Henze and
Stockhausen. Composers of the former Soviet Union such as Schnittke,
and Denisov have
been introduced to Western audiences largely through Kremer's efforts.
Martha Argerich, Valery Afanassiev, Oleg Maisenberg and Vadim Sakharov
are some of his favorite musical partners. Gidon Kremer plays a
Guarneri del Gesù - ex David - dating from 1730.
-- Names which are links
(both in this box and below) refer to my interviews elsewhere on this
Kremer has been in Chicago on several occasions, and in May of 1997 he
agreed to meet with me for a conversation. On that visit he was
giving the world premiere of the Violin
Concerto by Aribert Reimann, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Daniel
Having admired both his artistry and his wide selection of repertoire,
I was glad he discussed the entire range of material with me that day .
. . . . . .
I would assume that you have, perhaps, one of the largest repertoires
of any violinist. How do you decide what you’re going to play and
what you’re not going to play?
Gidon Kremer: I
make decisions of that kind for a number of reasons. I have a
long-standing relationship with a number of wonderful composers that
come from Russia, or from the ex-Soviet Union. I should mention
Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina, Arvo Pärt, Valentyn
Sylvestrov, and Edison Denisov. Recently I got very involved
playing — and
enjoying in fact — the music of the Georgian
Kancheli. Beside that, I’m always open-minded to meet
composers from other worlds, and so I was lucky and privileged to have
cooperated with the great Luigi Nono, and with a number of American
composers like Ned
Rorem or Philip
Glass, and most recently, John Adams, and Japanese
composers like Yūji Takahashi or Toro Takemitsu. Most of the time
these are working relationships, and they help me to understand not
only what an author wanted in this particular piece, but in general
they help me to approach the whole area of contemporary music much
better. But not only to approach better contemporary music, but
also to understand here and there what the lab of the great classics
was or still is. I learned a lot about music in general by
playing contemporary music.
BD: Do you
advise that all violinists play some contemporary music to better
understand Beethoven and Mozart?
GK: I think
Beethoven and Mozart helps also to understand which of the contemporary
composers is better or worse. Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, Bach
definitely; they don’t belong only to the past. They accompany
us, and will accompany the future generations. I feel very
strongly that music doesn’t belong to a museum, and therefore, since my
young days when I was an adolescent, I actually felt very interested in
playing contemporary music as well. I always tried to balance
things by playing a lot of the well-known pieces on one hand, and on
another hand introducing something unknown. But the unknown is
not always only related to contemporary music. Here and there it
is also something that was forgotten or was never discovered in the
past. I had big pleasures discovering composers like Erwin
Schulhoff or Artur Lourié, just to give you an example.
BD: What is
it that makes you decide, “Yes, I want to spend time learning this
piece,” or, “No, I think I’ll put this piece aside?”
GK: Here and
there it’s a commission that I am encouraged to contribute to by some
friends, by some colleagues, by some people that I trust. Here
and there it’s a visual aspect of a score that convinces me that this
is a wonderful score. Because in contemporary music you can’t
always hear immediately what it is like, here and there you learn to
see it just looking at the score. Here and there I get interested
because I follow some performances or listen to some tapes of composers
which I before wouldn’t have known. I’m glad that in this way my
repertoire really got very large. At the same time, I have to
admit that I get hundred times more scores being sent to me in the
hopes that I will perform. I have to disappoint so many composers
that I always feel guilty. [Both laugh] But in a lifetime,
you can really do just a little, and my little contribution consists of
the effort to include every season two, three, four new pieces into my
repertoire. It’s the best I can do. Sometimes there are
chamber music performances along with some concertos.
Occasionally it’s only chamber music. That depends, but in the
year ’97 I actually commissioned six pieces, so I’m over the
average. But this relates to my fiftieth birthday, and also to
the fact that I’m trying — as many musicians are
these days — to celebrate Schubert. I’m
doing a Schubert cycle consisting of six different programs
— all works for violin and piano, and violin and orchestra,
and selected works of chamber music. And on each of these
evenings I include at least one premiere.
and something new?
and something new, yes. In January I performed with the German
Chamber Orchestra, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, a new opus by Sofia
Gubaidulina called Impromptu.
I also played with them a piece by a wonderful Russian composer,
Alexander Vustin, Fantasy for Violin
and Chamber Orchestra, which I hope to introduce next year in
this country at Carnegie Hall with the Orpheus Orchestra. I
played recently a new piece by Giya Kancheli for violin and piano,
which he wrote for me after I played at least fifteen times, his big Lament for Violin, Voice and Big Orchestra.
This new piece of his is called Time
and Again. It’s a wonderful piece, which I just did in
Europe during the third segment of my Schubert cycle in all big cities
of Europe. And in the summer I am going to premiere a new piece
by a Latvian composer, Peteris Vasks, who is just in process of writing
a violin concerto for myself and the newly formed chamber orchestra,
Kremerata Baltica, which consists only of members of the three Baltic
states. We just played our first concert on the ninth of February
in my home town of Riga.
BD: It’s an
amazing schedule; I don’t know how you keep it up! When you get a
new score, do you know how long it will take to get into your fingers
and, perhaps more importantly, into your psyche?
[Laughs] I’m trying to understand it, of course,
immediately. Usually it takes some weeks, and occasionally it
takes some months. For example, for this premiere of the Aribert
Reimann Concerto, I worked
probably something like three months consistently because this piece
was really big challenge, not only for the fingers, but also for the
ear. I’m glad that I could premiere this piece in Chicago, and
I’m looking forward to play it with the Chicago Symphony in Europe.
BD: Do you
take into account the audience that’s going to be listening to each new
GK: Glen Gould once
said, “The relationship is not the artist and the audience. It’s
one to one, the artist and the score.” I would say I want to
bring the music to the audience, but if I believe in a score, then it
doesn’t matter to me if one person or thousands will appreciate
it. I do find there’s much more positive impact if something is
also liked by a large number of people, like the latest Piazzolla
record which had such a big success. I feel wonderful because I
love this music. I didn’t do it for commercial purposes, but it
was found by a large audience. But I believe as much in Piazzolla
as in Kancheli, and if Kancheli is today not as well known, it doesn’t
matter. Some day in the future people will appreciate him more,
like they learned to appreciate Alfred Schnittke within the last
twenty-five years. My approach didn’t change. I stayed
loyal during this twenty-five years to Schnittke, even at the times
when nobody wanted it to be performed. Now he seems to be a
classic of the end of the century. So it’s wonderful to follow it
up, and to participate in this process.
BD: You say
you don’t care how many people listen at any one time. Are we
just eavesdropping on your relationship to this score?
What does it mean ‘eavesdropping’?
in, almost surreptitiously.
GK: I don’t
know. I am very selective, after all, and I don’t want to say
that my repertoire represents the whole scale of good works of
contemporary composers. There are other performers that pick up
other scores, and I like to listen to them. I make my choices,
and I make my choices for very subjective reasons. Each time I
choose a piece, I really hope the audience will also like it,
somehow. Unconsciously, this is one of the reasons that I’m still
performing. If I wouldn’t believe that I can share my emotions,
if I wouldn’t have the evidence that many of the performances that I
gave of contemporary works would have resonance, then I would probably
give up performing and traveling, because it’s a very difficult kind of
what makes it all worth it?
[Laughs] Yes, somehow. If you see a happy face of a
composer, or if you see someone from the audience or some of your
colleagues being excited about something that you have just done for
the first time, this, of course, is a big support.
BD: Does it
do your heart good when something you’ve premiered is then picked up by
course. If a piece becomes popular with time, I feel I’ve somehow
helped it, like Tabula Rasa
of Arvo Pärt, which became such a popular piece, or a concerto
grosso by Schnittke, a piece which was dedicated to myself and my
partner Tatiana Grindenko, which also became a rather known piece of
contemporary music. So I’m always in favor if pieces are picked
up that I gave birth to.
BD: Do you
play the same for the microphone as you do for a live audience?
GK: I think
so. It’s quite difficult to catch emotions in an empty studio
because there are many aspects of it that interfere — especially
the editing. I feel like recordings that are done from a live
concert have occasionally more integrity because the editing is very
minimal. While in the studio, you’re giving yourself
completely. You’re fully engaged in the process, and you repeat
the same thing for eight or ten times. I’m doing it with my full
dedication, but at the same time I know that the editing is a very
dangerous thing. Only if you are used to working with certain
producers, then you can reach better results. If you are at the
mercy of some unknown person, it’s like being in a completely unknown
restaurant and not knowing what kind of food you are going to be
served. Occasionally you are lucky, but there are also many
So you have to build up trust with your producer?
right, and after having recorded more than a hundred CDs, I feel also
that I’ve worked with too many producers in the past. Now I am
trying to concentrate on certain producers, and I feel much more
comfortable. In the past there was too many distortions of what I
actually tried to do in the studio — not that I
was always perfect, but still this interference of some alien mind and
some alien ears is a very dangerous thing. That’s why I think
Glen Gould found for himself the best way of editing — he
did it himself!
BD: Are you
involved in the editing process, or do you leave that to others?
GK: No, I am
involved only at last stage of it. When the first edit is done, I
listen to it very carefully and come up with my 187 wishes, which
hopefully can be fulfilled and repaired. But this is not always
the case, and sometimes I’m misunderstood as well.
BD: Of your
187 wishes, do you get 170 of them, or do you get 32 of them?
following it up, so at least a good seventy percent of it would be done.
more in performance than in recording, but is there such a thing as a
GK: No, and
there shouldn’t be. As Nikolaus Harnoncourt put it a couple of
times, “Perfection is the worst enemy of beauty because humans can’t be
perfect.” We can just try for perfection, but we can never be as
perfect as the deep blue, for example. At the same time, fantasy
and the spirit of the human being is much more interesting.
Perfectionism that I was vaccinated with in my childhood and my years
of study also became my enemy, because of course you want to be as
precise, as correct, as possible. You want to be as loyal to the
composer as possible, and these should all be ingredients of a good
performance. Finally, perfection is not what matters, but
something between the lines. All that is in between the lines are
distortions of perfectness. I’m preparing myself now to play the
Alban Berg Concerto with two
different orchestras and two different conductors. Both of them
great — the Berlin Philharmonic and Abbado, and
Vienna Philharmonic and Harnoncourt. I have had this piece in my
repertoire for almost twenty years, and within the next ten days I’m
going to give seven performances with two different minds in front of
me. I’m trying to be flexible to their wishes, and I’m trying to
imagine that I will to discover new things in the concerto for
myself. So I did something very unusual because normally I
wouldn’t listen to recordings of the concerto — neither
to my own ones nor to other violinists. But there is this
recording of Louis Krasner giving one of the first performances in 1936
with Anton Webern conducting, and this morning I listened to it.
I thought it’s wonderful because it’s so personal. It’s so full
of expression, but it’s not a performance which you can say is
perfect. It’s not perfect sound-wise and it’s not perfect in the
vertical lines, but it’s perfect in a musical sense, and this
perfectness, this outstanding personal interpretation, is the best one
can find on records. The same holds with Astor Piazzolla.
It’s not his perfect playing on the bandoneon; it’s the spirit that
matters. When he is around, it seems like musicians play
differently than without him.
BD: So the
perfection is just a technical thing, but the artistry is what makes it?
course. I would say for me an artist is perfect that is full of
fantasy, full of challenge, and likes to take risks. Especially
because you are taking risks, you are exploring a borderline, and on
this razor’s edge you never meet real perfection. You can see
operations and you can reach out for more than perfection, but
perfection kind of kills it. You could be idiomatically perfectly
right or academically perfectly right, but the performance would be
[Laughs] I see. It would just fall flat.
GK: Yes, and
I feel we are living in a time when this perfection is expected
— especially because of the record industry. Because
of the number of records existing and still being produced and being
sold, we are in a dangerous time when perfection counts more than
artistry. Therefore, we have fewer personalities than maybe in
the past, when there was much less business going on.
BD: Is it
safe to assume that in the best performances, each one points out
different aspects of the piece?
course, and they can be quite contrary to each other. A wonderful
piece of music allows different interpretations, and I feel no composer
should be satisfied with just with one way of looking at his score.
When you give a commission to someone, do you give them any pointers or
any ideas, or do you just say, “Write me a piece?”
Here and there the piece is related to a combination of players; here
and there it’s related to a theme, to an occasion, to a celebration, so
there are different aspects of it. I can’t tell them what the
impact is. I’m trying to encourage the composer to do as much as
he wants to express, so I’m giving him the allowance to explore things
which he never did before. But if I’m sent a score which
was not discussed with me beforehand, I’m also quite open minded.
I’m trying to figure out what is new to me in this particular
score. Most of the time scores that were given in commission were
performed by myself. There are only a couple of cases when I
said, “I’m terribly sorry, but I really don’t feel it’s my
piece.” Occasionally it happens that I would say such a thing
after giving it birth and playing it a couple of times and not feeling
at home, but most of the times I was lucky to get pieces which actually
BD: Let me
ask a real easy question. What’s the purpose of music?
GK: I think
music is there as a language that can bring us closer to each other if
we are allowing ourselves to open up and not just consider music as
something that is a driving force like a beat in the pop music.
If we can open up and look at music and at musicians as colleagues, as
partners in a dialogue, music is something that can give us a lot of
discovery. With music we get a companion for adventures, and
therefore I feel music that is easy listening, or music that is assumed
to be a convenient accompaniment to our meals or our shopping is
dangerous. Like pollution in the air, there’s also a pollution in
the sound, and all this kind of convenient music disturbs me enormously.
Is it convenient music, or is it simply non-music?
GK: Yes, you
would be closer to it by saying it’s non-music if the pieces would be
so often, for whatever reason, classics taken for that kind of
use. I’m so fed up with listening to the Four Seasons or the Mozart
concertos in hotel rooms, and I really don’t believe that the spaghetti
that is produced by the influence of classical music, or the milk that
cows produce that listen to classical music is better. [Both
BD: Would you
be horrified to hear one of your recordings in an elevator?
Yes. If I walk into a restaurant and I hear violin music, I
almost always ask the waiter to stop it, or to change the
channel. I’m very seldom listening to myself, but violin sounds
are something that I live so much with that if I want to have a
discussion with a friend or a nice meal, I’d rather leave it out.
BD: When you
perform, where is the balance between the artistic achievement and an
GK: I know
that in America very often classical music is put in the leisure or
entertainment department, and I feel strongly that this is wrong.
I have nothing against entertainment, because in this very dangerous
and troublesome world, entertainment can also be a necessary and
wonderful distraction. But I don’t consider my own preoccupation
with music any kind of entertainment. I even don’t consider
playing tangoes by Astor Piazzolla an entertainment. I think it’s
full-value music. Piazzolla just happens to be one of the great
composers of this century.
BD: Did he
not consider it entertaining?
GK: Here and
there they are lovely pieces that you could compare with waltzes by
Chopin, which can also have their entertaining value in itself.
But I don’t think music in general should be considered as an
entertainment. I feel music has much more power in it, and music
can be much better than only entertaining. As I said, I have
nothing against entertainment. I like to be entertained
myself. Music, as a profession, for me is much more than just
entertainment. So when I walk on stage, I want to share some
emotions; I want to pass on some sentiments; I want to also give the
idea that a certain composer could be quite witty, and I hope that here
and there I am understood. Talking about entertainers, last night
I went to a performance by the 88-year-old Victor Borge, and he is
really an entertainer. But he is such a classy entertainer that
it’s also more than just entertaining. He tickles someone’s mind
in his audience as well, and he is a wonderful, gracious piano
player. Of a whole generation, he’s maybe one of the last to be
BD: It seems
that his entertaining and his comedy comes from a deep, genuine love of
that’s right. We all can have our pleasure of falling in love and
meeting someone challenging, but what conducts our life is deeply felt
love, and finally this is what matters. As love still is in the
heart of Victor Borge, so love could be felt in every piece by Astor
Piazzolla. This is love not only of the music; that is probably
just love of life, and this is a sensation which in many perfect
performances is lost.
BD: Is it
safe to assume that you fall in love with each piece that you play?
on stage, I feel I have to be in love, even if I dismiss a certain
piece afterwards or after a couple of performances. As I said,
not all premieres would last for years, but I would make a fool of
myself if I would walk on stage and not love music that I play.
BD: Is the
music that you play for everyone?
GK: I don’t
know... maybe not for everyone. I was told by a manager in
England some fifteen years ago, “Oh Gidon, you are so special!
You are not for everyone, so not everyone can appreciate how special
you are.” [Laughs] I think that’s silly. If there is
something personal in what I do, someone that appreciates the meaning
of this which is personal will find his way to it. This doesn’t
mean that every piece I play has to be liked by everybody, but the way
I approach music can be a matter for a number of music lovers.
I’m not trying to make myself popular, so I’m not trying to make things
which audiences would necessarily like more because they are easy to
access. The quantity of concerts that you play or the quantity of
records that you sell doesn’t speak about quality. The majority
of people and majority of music lovers are consumers of something that
is easy. I don’t think to live is easy, but many people want to
consider art or music or something that relates another to be easy
rather than be challenging or adventurous or difficult. I don’t
want to discourage people from contemporary music because I feel there
is a misunderstanding. Very often people think contemporary music
is too difficult because it has to be understood. Good
contemporary music doesn’t have to be understood. Giya Kancheli
or Leonard Bernstein or Astor Piazzolla all can be felt. Music is
about feeling, but you can learn more about the piece if you actually
get involved and listen to more of this composer. When you read
something about music, you get much more pleasure out of it, but the
easygoing thing, the ‘rock’
of the classical world is something I can’t deal at all with. But
millions do. So if my producer at Nonesuch says, “Oh, wonderful
— we sold already more than a hundred thousand records of
Piazzolla,” I’d say, “Wait a minute... Vanessa-Mae sells
millions!” [Both laugh] This is an ironic comment, but it’s
an ironic comment on the taste of the larger audience.
BD: Is this
what makes a piece of music great — that it
exists on so many levels?
yes. But I hope that a good pieces of music is not distorted to
such a degree that it becomes easy listening.
you try to go after the rock music audience, or the basketball audience?
I don’t have the goal to achieve as many people as possible in this, my
small single life. I’m trying to be as loyal to music as I can,
and if this is appreciated, I’m happy.
BD: Do you
have any advice for composers who want to write contemporary music, or
contemporary music for the violin?
Yes, I would have one bit of advice. Mauricio Kagel, an
Argentinian born German composer said that there are composers that
write pieces for other composers. My advice to a composer would
be not do that. After all, music is a matter of dialogue with an
audience, so you need to give the audience a chance, even at the first
listening, to get the desire to listen to it once more. If the
impact of the piece is emotionally strong and not just rational, this
desire will appear.
BD: [With a
gentle nudge] So you don’t like ‘academic
[Smiles] I don’t like academic music. I don’t like academic
musicians or academic composers. I have a lot of respect for
knowledge, and working with such a wonderful conductor like Nikolaus
Harnoncourt, who is very often, as the cliché goes, labeled
— as I am here and there — ‘intellectual’,
which is completely wrong. Working with such a musician, I
learned that to know something is always an additional power. But
if you know something about the tradition, that doesn’t mean you have
to fall on your knees and just try to be as loyal as possible to that
tradition, and that’s all the impact you have to give to a
performance. This is just a matter of roots. Contemporary
music has its roots in the past, and we have to explore this past as
much as we can. But here and there we have to take off the dust
that the wrong tradition got on it.
BD: In that
case, I would think it would be almost ideal to have someone like
Harnoncourt, who specializes in early music and early performance, to
do the Berg concerto with you.
right. He was a specialist in Baroque music, but in the meantime
he went on. He recorded as much Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and
Schumann as any other big conductor. I guess Alban Berg is still
a novelty for him, and I’m full of expectation how he is going to face
BD: Are you
optimistic about the future of musical composition?
GK: If I’m
looking at the charts, no. [Both laugh] But to walk on
stage and to live this troublesome, troubling life, you have to have
within yourself a certain optimism. Otherwise it would be too
depressing. But the future of music depends on musical education,
and I’m quite worried that this musical education is reduced to a
minimum these days. Where should we take new audiences if the
kids would not learn that there is such a precious thing as
music? If they learn only about music what is on MTV, this is a
BD: Does that
mean that you should be on MTV?
GK: No, I
don’t think I belong there.
not? That’s a way to grab them.
[Laughs] I’m not sure. I feel like this is also a very
commercial enterprise, and even I’m glad if something that I do finds a
large audience, I don’t want to be commercialized.
BD: You have
just passed your fiftieth birthday. Are you at the point in your
career that you want to be at this age?
GK: In my
career I have reached much more than I dreamed about in my youth.
I did quite well, and I’m still curious; I’m still full of ideas.
I was quite worried to reach this age of fifty, because it seemed like
a mountain which you never want to climb on. But now, after I
passed the peak of it, it feels a bit easier, and I hope still to enjoy
music in the future.
BD: Thank you
for sharing all that you have given us so far. We look forward to
GK: Thank you.
© 1997 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on May 19,
1997. Portions were broadcast on WNIB later that
This transcription was made in 2014, and posted on this
at that time.
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