Last Night at Benaroya: Silver Sparks and Sonia Braga (in Spirit)

It was a good call for violinist Gidon Kremer--who brought his string orchestra Kremerata Baltica to Benaroya Hall Friday night--not to conduct Bartok's Divertimento, which opened the evening, but to let the 23 players at it themselves. The pained intimacy of the slow movement, with something of the bleak numbness of a Shostakovich string quartet, worked beautifully with the musicians all focused in on each other, chamber-music style. The surrounding fast movements are Bartok at his most lovable, with bluesy tunes, vinegary harmonies, rhythmic bounce and sweep, and a constant freshness and inventiveness--ideal repertory for this smart and energetic group.

Kremer then appeared as soloist in Schumann's Cello Concerto--in an odd arrangement for strings alone, with timpani, and Kremer himself playing the solo part transposed up. Not that the reworking didn't work, but I did miss the colors of the original--not only the winds and brass, but of the solo cello. A cello's upper register has an intense plangency unlike any other sound in the orchestra; even a violin's own high end can't duplicate it. Imagine the taut brilliance of Pavarotti singing a high C, as compared to a soprano singing the same pitch in her much more comfortable midrange, and you'll get an idea of the loss of vibrancy that happens in transferring this music from cello to (I'll say it--the much blander) violin.

The concert's second half focused on selections from the orchestra's recent marvelous CD De Profundis, starting with a work of that name by Lithuanian composer Raminta Serksnyte (my new favorite composer name, surpassing Riccardo Pick-Mangiagalli and Adalbert Gyrowetz)--a dark, nervous, Bernard Herrmann-esque piece full of darting, furtive gestures built up into surging textures. The orchestra's deeply introspective and elegiac reading of a Minuet in D Minor by Schubert led to Arvo Part's Passacaglia, the gem of the CD--a miraculously luminous piece for solo violin and vibraphone against treading strings, with refracted neo-baroque harmonies and dissonances thrown up like silver sparks.

A churning, busy Bach-derived piece by Steven Kovacs Tickmayer (I didn't catch the title; it was a last-minute addition to the program) was followed by Georgs Pelecis' Flowering Jasmine, a beguiling, delicately rhythmic miniature with garlands of vibraphone and harmonic hints of the two Astor Piazzolla pieces that closed the program. His sultry, slowly unfurling Melodia in A is perfect Sonia-Braga-looking-out-the-window-at-the-rain-after-a-breakup music; his virtuosic Fuga opens startlingly with scratchy effects from all the strings, turning them into an orchestra of guiros and rattles. The vibraphone soloist was Andrei Pushkarev, who, especially in this Fuga, drew deserved cheers. Two encores (unidentified, but not on De Profundis) opened Kremerata Baltica's stylistic embrace even wider: a gooey yet ethereal tongue-in-cheek waltz, and a piece--for which all the players set down their instruments and spoke/sang--made of emphatically rhythmic chanted syllables. It was, essentially, a contemporary-music pops program; how come no one has thought of doing this before?

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