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‘Seasons’ Springs Dazzlingly to Life

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

It was, in many ways, a typical Wednesday night at the Hollywood Bowl. The audience included its usual percentage of revelers. The folks who fly the skies did so with their normal obliviousness to music below. The performers on stage were cleanly and decidedly amplified, with little residue from nature’s acoustic. The program, as so many are at the Bowl, was built around a selection from the classical hit parade.

And yet it was possible to leave this concert with a whole new appreciation of the Bowl as well as a renewed optimism for the future of music and culture. The performers--violinist Gidon Kremer and his new string orchestra, KREMERata BALTICA, made up of extraordinary young players from the Baltic states--are special. They animate everything their bows touch, even and especially Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.”

KREMERata BALTICA is striking. Never have I seen so handsome or stylishly groomed an orchestra. These musicians from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia look, to a member, handpicked by a Hollywood casting agent for their terrific good looks and sophisticated haircuts. But they also happen to play fantastically well. The combination is too good to be true, young musicians passionately devoted to their art, but not geekishly glued to their instruments to the exclusion of the world around them.

The inspiration for the playing is Kremer, the 51-year-old violinist who manages to remain ever fresh and imaginative. Nearly 20 years ago he joined Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony for a recording of “The Four Seasons” that at the time seemed to do a good enough job of bringing Vivaldi’s nature painting to life. But compared with Wednesday’s daringly dramatic performance, it now sounds smoothly efficient, despite some spectacular solo violin playing.

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At the Bowl, I was reminded just how close in time and spirit “The Four Seasons” was to “Robinson Crusoe.” And just as Crusoe needed to be placed in a seemingly hostile environment to discover the real astonishment of nature in Daniel Defoe’s novel (which was published in 1719, six years before the concertos), it helped for a listener to hear Vivaldi’s inspired nature painting in the environment of the Bowl.

Kremer brought out the extremes of the music. His spring birds sang raucously; his summer storms were violent; his fall Bacchanalia left sloppy, sleepy drunks in its wake; his winter shivers went deep into the soul. Some would call it exaggeration. But there we were with neighbors asleep, wine glasses in hand, with police helicopters on as avid a posse as Vivaldi’s hunters, with the surprising evening chills the Bowl produces even on warm days. It all took.

“The Four Seasons” can be fun in its special effects and its call to virtuosity, and it was certainly great fun in this dazzling performance. But it can also be profound, and it was that too. In a brilliantly unconventional move, Kremer introduced it by opening the concert with Arvo Part’s mystical “Fratres” that did an effective job of both setting a serious tone and putting the Vivaldi into a spiritual context. Kremer’s depiction of nature, so vivid, is ultimately a place for deep sustenance.

The second half of the program was worldly. A ceaselessly inquiring musician, Kremer is always promoting surprising repertory, and a recent enthusiasm has been for Nino Rota, best known as the composer for Fellini’s films and for “The Godfather” and its first sequel. Here he sat in with the players for Rota’s bittersweet Concerto for Strings from the mid-'60s.

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After that was the “Tango Ballet” by Astor Piazzolla in an arrangement for solo violin and string orchestra that Kremer commissioned from a St. Petersburg composer, Leonid Desyatnikov. Tango is not, for Kremer, a crossover fling. He treats Piazzolla as a major and original 20th century figure, irresistibly seductive but also avant-garde. He played the solo part of this short ballet as emotionally and darkly as Shostakovich, and his young colleagues understood that subversive spirit exactly. A Piazzolla recording from them is promised soon. Look for it.


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