It isn’t every night that you get to see a world class bandoneon player put the squeeze on a vintage Alfred Arnold model salvaged from an antique shop in Buenos Aires. Or hear a classical chamber orchestra bend their bows to some South American swing. It all seems perfectly natural and appropriately adventurous when Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica pay homage to Astor Piazzolla.

Gidon Kremer
© Petra Hajská

Kremer almost single-handedly pulled Piazzolla out of obscurity, at least among Western musical cognescenti, with his 1996 recording Hommage à Piazzolla. The organizers of the nascent Strings of Autumn festival invited Kremer to play the music at Prague Castle, setting the stage for a reprise 25 years later. The anniversary celebration at the grand Lucerna ballroom also marked the founding of Kremerata Baltica, Piazzolla’s centenary, and an excursion into world music that has only gotten stronger and more popular in the intervening years.

The evening opened with Kremerata Baltica taking the stage for Tres minutos con la realidad, a lively blend of Latin and classical elements that the composer described as “a toccata in tango rhythm”. The players took the entire three minutes to find a groove, but showed flexibility and range. They needed it when they were joined by Per-Arne Glorvigen, the Norwegian “wizard of the buttons” who perched the bandoneon on his knees and set a bracing rhythm and dark tone for his composition Tango funèbre. The piece runs through a dizzying series of tempo and time changes, and ensemble and soloist were tight from first note to last.

Per Arne Glorvigen and Kremerata Baltica
© Petra Hajská

Glorvigen’s story of how he recovered the bandoneon version of a Stradivarius was an enlightening and entertaining introduction to Tristezas de un doble A, Piazzolla’s tribute to his favorite instrument. Starting with an extended solo, Glorvigen gave a virtuoso demonstration of its capabilities, by turns soulful, elegant, jazzy and ferocious – there’s just no other way to describe the vivid electric ending. The orchestra set the pace with a syncopated continuo that gathered momentum and rose in volume and pitch for the fireworks finale.

The orchestra sounded more in its element with Nino Rota’s Concerto for strings, playing with a light touch that gave the music an airborne feel and silken finish. A whirling, snappy close brought Kremer to the stage, first as part of a string quartet playing Milonga sin palabras, a complex variation on an Argentinian song/dance form. Trading melodic leads and different time signatures, the orchestra set a taut framework and Kremer played with heartbreaking elegance. He describes Piazzolla’s work as “music that makes you joyful and sad at the same time”, and no one captures that melancholy quality quite as well.

Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica
© Petra Hajská

A Grand Tango duet with pianist Georgijs Osokins was less successful, partly because of the acoustics, with both men facing stage left rather than the audience. Back with the orchestra, Kremer served up a captivating Vardarito for violin and strings rendered in somber hues and tones. Slow pacing and a straight classical approach gave the music room to expand and breathe, creating a lush soundscape.

The program wrapped with vibraphone player Andrej Puschkarev joining Kremer and the ensemble for two showpieces. Celos featured some very sharp work by the orchestra that framed more glowing sounds from Kremer and atmospheric textures on the vibes. Fuga y Misterio combined tango rhythms in the orchestra with jazz lines in the lead instruments to create an animated, Latin-flavored finale.

Gidon Kremer, Andrei Pushkarev and Kremerata Baltica
© Petra Hajská

The great affection that Kremer and his musicians have for this music, and the care they put into crafting clever arrangements and exquisite performances, extended to two tango encores, Oskar Strok’s Ojos Negros and Piazzolla’s Oblivion. The universality they find in the music was beautifully drawn in an unannounced addition to the program, a brief bandoneon-cello duet excerpted from Bach’s Cello Suites. And Kremer’s advocacy was prescient. A quarter-century after Hommage à Piazzolla, world music is a well-established and growing genre, and Kremer and his ensemble rank among its finest practitioners.