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Kremerata Baltica, Knights: two small orchestras seeking to break boundaries in very different ways

When Gidon Kremer, the great and inquiring Latvian violinist, turned 50 in 1997, he had already had his share of midlife crises, including putting down the violin for a brief period and going off on a personal quest to India. He’s not the red sports car type and already possessed a priceless violin. So he founded a chamber orchestra and named it after himself, Kremerata Baltica. His intention was to break down any musical barriers still standing, delve even more deeply into the essence of music than he already had, have a little fun and presumably get precise GPS bearings on the fountain of youth.

Kremer has pretty much managed all of the above. His ensemble of young players from the Baltic has brought to vibrant life a treasury of spiritually intense Eastern European music (with detours by way of Argentinian New Tango, American and British Minimalism and Russo/Korean stand-up comedy). The Kremerata has this month added to its important discography not one but two profound, pioneering CDs on different labels. The players also tour restlessly; they will appear with Kremer on Monday at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa.

Thirteen years later, the average age of Kremerata’s players somehow remains 27. No need to talk about the future of classical music when Kremer boasts this renewable source of probing, versatile and, it so happens, exceptionally attractive young musicians.

But if we are to talk about the future of classical music in America, sooner or later, the Knights will come up. Around the time that Kremer created his Kremerata, two music students in New York, the brothers Eric and Colin Jacobson, a violinist and cellist, organized informal chamber music evenings they called “The Knights of the Many-Sided Table.” This eventually turned into a Brooklyn-based chamber orchestra of young musicians with a modern sensibility, a wide repertory of works new and old, along with a crusading musical mission of bringing classical music into clubs.

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Colin conducts. Eric is concertmaster. The Knights too have a new CD. And the brothers will soon have a presence in Orange County as well. They are members of the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, which will be in residence for the Laguna Beach Music Festival in February.

If you walk down the streets of Brooklyn, even gentrified Brooklyn, Eastern Europe doesn’t seem all that far away. Forming a Brooklyn Baltica of members with roots in the old country wouldn’t be a difficult task. But only a hint of the Old World can be found on the Knights’ new Sony CD, “New Worlds.” It contains a touch of Dvorák and a beguiling work by a young composer from Berkeley of Lithuanian/Argentine/Chinese ancestry, Gabriela Lena Frank.

The Kremerata has placed at the center of its penetratingly new ECM release, “Hymns and Prayers,” a quintet by César Franck, the 19th century Belgian composer.

And it turns out there is more than a C separating Frank and Franck, and more than a sea separating the Kremerata and the Knights.

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While both small orchestras may seek vast new worlds, they come from opposite cultures. Kremerata are knights of the transcendental. The Knights’ holy grail is grittier.

The differences are in the playing and the repertory. Kremer, who introduced the mystical Estonian Arvo Pärt and Russian polystylist Arnold Schnittke to the West in the 1970s, continues to promote music of great importance from many places. John Adams wrote his Violin Concerto for Kremer. I can’t think of another soloist before the public today who has Kremer’s combination of depth and breadth — and technique.

Kremerata Baltica represents all that Kremer is. Besides a performance of the Franck Quintet of astonishing resonance, “Hymns and Prayers” contains eight ethereal hymns for violin, string orchestra and percussion by Serbian/Hungarian composer Stevan Kovacs Tickmayer and another otherworldly new work, “Silent Prayer,” by the visionary Georgian composer Giya Kancheli. This is the kind of CD that, were it to be played by enough people at the same time, could well create a cosmic vibration suitable for realigning the planets and undoing global warming.

The Kremerata’s other new CD, “De Profundis” (on Nonesuch), is no less substantive if a bit more surprising. As Kremer writes in the notes, the program of 12 short pieces, which are all over the map (more Pärt and Tickmayer, along with Piazzolla, Michael Nyman, Schubert, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Schumann and others), is designed to open our minds to divine influences. Here he also takes a stand against an oil-hungry world of greed, corruption and false prophets.

The Knights have their own philosophical and political agenda. “New Worlds” ends with “Appalachian Spring.” Colin Jacobson writes in his notes that the Knights performed it often in downtown New York during “a time of great hope and expectation as one of the most historic of American presidential elections was fast approaching.”

But the Knights’ “New World” does not truck in revelation. These, after all, are Brooklyn hipsters. The disc begins and ends with crude performances of Ives’ “The Unanswered Question” and the Copland. A lightweight German cellist, Jan Vogler, joins the band for Dvorák’s “Silent Woods,” which here sounds a lot noisier and shallower than Kanchelli’s “Silent Prayer.”

It would be easy, on the basis of these performances, to write off the Knights as a kind of club experiment. These hapless Knights in a battle of the bands with the deep, technically superb Kremerata would seem almost Pythonesque.

But not so fast. The Knights brings out a dazzling spectrum of color in Frank’s “Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout.” And in Osvaldo Golijov’s “Last Round,” which rounds out the CD, the band reveals a level of sizzle that even Kremerata can’t match in its Piazzolla.

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Maybe the Ives and Copland aren’t so bad either when you consider that the Knights so often need to cut through a background of food, drink and talk. Their rough-and-ready CD, moreover, seems equalized for the iPod. It sounds better through ear buds or cheapo computer speakers than it does on a stereo. And as much as “Appalachian Spring” captures the spiritual essence of America for many of us, the Knights remind us that Copland did write it for the dance.

Coincidentally, the Kremerata and the Knights also have recent Mozart. Evgeny Kissin leads the Kremerata from the keyboard in sublime performances of the Piano Concertos Nos. 20 and 27 ( EMI Classics). The Knights back up the Canadian violinist Lara St. John in excitable performances of the First and Third Violin Concertos as well as the Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola (with her brother, violist Scott St. John).

But that is not to say that Kremerata isn’t club friendly in its own right. Kremer has befriended the hilarious musical duo Igudesman and Joo. Check out the Kremerata Riverdancing on YouTube.

And it doesn’t mean that the Knights, in the slow movement of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, won’t melt your heart. As will Kremerata’s version of Michael Nyman’s “Trysting Fields” on “De Profundis.” It’s, in fact, a small world, these New and Old worlds. Nyman based his number (taken from his soundtrack to the film “Drowning by Numbers”) on that Mozart movement.

mark.swed@latimes.com


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