In an era that seems ever more intent on throwing up walls, musicians are once again proving the benefits of cooperation and bridge-building. Take Maestros Gidon Kremer and András Keller. Starting 25 May 2017, they embark on a bold new adventure with the two ensembles they respectively lead, Kremerata Baltica and Concerto Budapest, as they undertake a ten-day joint tour of Asia.

It's also an opportunity to mark the coincidence of multiple anniversaries. Earlier this year Kremer, one of the world's most intriguingly original violinists and contemporary music champions, turned 70. In 1997, the Latvian maestro founded Kremerata Baltica as a chamber orchestra comprising young musicians from the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Along with that ensemble's 20th anniversary, the tour gives a nod to Keller's 10th season at the helm of Concerto Budapest, one of Hungary's longest-standing classical ensembles. 

Gidon Kremer and András Keller © Sandor Benko
Gidon Kremer and András Keller
© Sandor Benko

“When the idea was born that we could do something together onstage as a larger group, I immediately approved because it’s a new experience”, said Kremer in a joint interview via Skype. Kremer and Keller spoke at the end of a day rehearsing one of the two programmes they organised for Asia (which they performed in a sendoff event at the Liszt Academy in Budapest as a preface to the tour).

“I'm always looking for new experiences and for new repertoire for Kremerata Baltica. This tour allows us a possibility to approach some things which in small entities we would be unable to do. It's also an opportunity to work again with a conductor whom the orchestra has very much enjoyed collaborating with in the past. About 80% of their work has been without a conductor – others have been Simon Rattle, Yuri Temirkanov, Esa-Pekka Salonen, for instance – so this kind of partnership is always appreciated. András understands what it is to be a chamber musician”. 

András Keller, an internationally acclaimed violin soloist and educator, who also founded the Keller String Quartet in 1987, was appointed artistic director and chief conductor of the storied Concerto Budapest Symphony Orchestra in 2007, the year of its centenary. “My general aim is also very similar”, he says. “I come from strong chamber music roots and train my orchestra in this way. So one of the main goals of this work together for the tour is for both groups to draw on this inspiration we both share”.

Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė, cellist, with András Keller and Gidon Kremer © Sandor Benko
Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė, cellist, with András Keller and Gidon Kremer
© Sandor Benko

After the tour launches in Beijing, the musicians head to Xi'an and then to Seoul for two separate programmes, concluding their journey with a concert in Taipei on 3 June. “What's much more important than the where of the tour is the fact of the collaboration itself”, adds Keller. “The idea for this joint tour is quite organic and natural. [Gidon Kremer] has also performed as a guest with Concerto Budapest since I've been conductor”. He remarks that the mutual benefits were already in evidence in the rehearsal from which he and his colleague had just emerged. “It was a really fantastic surprise for me, such an inspiring day. Of course these are two different groups, but both are focused on discovering the music. What we hope is that the public in Asia will hear and appreciate this element of exploration and of creating music in the moment, which is our main aim.”

Kremerata Baltica, according to its founder, “tries to be far away from routine. I could say the same applies to Concerto Budapest. These are musicians who are open-mindeded. And we share something else important with András: the concept that music is there to be served and not to be used”. Kremer elaborates: “Gifted performers sometimes use music for their own self-promotion, forgetting that there is always a message in music and that you have to deliver this message and serve the composer. Real art is a calling and is related to higher forces than just being human. We are there to serve this cause, not to make ourselves showmen of the moment.”

Both Kremer and Keller emphasise the inspiration they continue to draw from a close friendship that goes back decades. Last season, in early 2016, they made a kind of trial run of the idea of a joint tour for their ensembles when they traveled with soloists Martha Argerich, Radu Lupu, and Khatia Buniatishvili to a variety of venues across Europe, as well as Turkey and UAE.

Kremer and Keller play the Bach Double Concerto © Sandor Benko
Kremer and Keller play the Bach Double Concerto
© Sandor Benko

The fare selected for the Asian adventure includes Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, Ernst von Dohnányi's 1933 piece Symphonic Minutes, the Violin Concerto of Sibelius with Kremer as the soloist (programme I); and Philip Glass' Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, and the Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV 1043 by J.S. Bach, in which Kremer and Keller will join together as soloists (Programme II). Kremer serves as the conductor throughout. 

Why this particular lineup? Keller says that the arc from Bach to Glass seemed a natural way to display the versatility and interests of both ensembles and their conductors, although they wish the presenting venues had agreed to their suggestion of Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta as part of the menu. “Unfortunately that did not work out, but I'm excited to introduce Dohnányi's music alongside the more familiar repertoire, since I think this is a brilliant piece and he is an underrated composer.”

“I always look for a certain balance between classics and contemporary repertoire with Kremerata Baltica”, explains Kremer. The Glass concerto makes a good choice to represent the latter because “Glass is a composer whose signature is immediately recognizable. For me this is a sign of a personality. I've been a champion of his music for many years, and it's good to play a piece that is so recent (2010), and for which there is not a vast repertoire. Another reason is that this is our way to celebrate his 80th birthday this year.”

The logistical plan is to rotate principal chairs between pieces, while in the chamber-scale Bach concerto, audiences will have a chance to experience Kremer and Keller sharing the same role as soloists.

Bach's Double Concerto holds special significance for Kremer, whose mentor David Oistrakh recorded a legendary account with Yehudi Menuhin. Throughout his own career, Kremer has played the work with both artists and with numerous other legendary colleagues. “Quite simply, András and I both are violinists, so it was natural to include a classic piece that is a jewel of the repertoire.”

What do they admire about one another's personalities as artists? “I have to say that Gidon is honestly incomparable, a visionary artist”, says Keller. “András is so full of music and ideas”, counters Kremer, “that it is wonderful just observing how a piece is born anew in each bar. Just today in rehearsal I felt justified to be part of this project. There will naturally be ups and downs on the tour, but we will never give up and will try always to sound refreshing.” 

Combined forces of Kremerata Baltica and Concerto Budapest © Sandor Benko
Combined forces of Kremerata Baltica and Concerto Budapest
© Sandor Benko

What is the principal challenge such an undertaking poses? “This approach is very fragile and sensitive. We are taking a risk”, replies Keller. In the most practical terms, there's the extra financial burden, adds Kremer. “Bringing two orchestras and leaders together always makes the whole project expensive. Even though the musicians benefit artistically, there's a challenge to sell such a project. We are grateful that our managements took the risk to agree to this adventure. As András said, it really is a risk. All my life risks have been significant to my approach. As the philosopher Kiergegaard said, 'the greater the risk, the greater the faith'.”

And by taking this risk, what do they hope observers in the music world – or even beyond – will gain? “It's a genuine European Union experience”, says Kremer. “In this joint orchestra there are multiple languages spoken: Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian, Russian, Hungarian, English.” He jokes that the only reason they don't need to use Esperanto is because “András expresses what he wants to with his hands and music-making so well that even the Kremerata players, none of whom knows Hungarian, suddenly believes they can speak that as well.” Their Asian audiences will encounter “a European sound, and a European attitude to aesthetics and to ethics. I also expect many concertgoers there will be surprised to see so many youngsters in strong professional orchestras.” 

“I think this is the beginning of something that we want to continue”, says Keller. “There is great understanding, respect, and support between each musician. For a conductor this is paradise.” 

While there are plenty of projects that bring international musicians together, Kremer points out that this joint effort “shows exactly what is not recognized by many politicians: that unity is much more important than all this emphasis on patriotism. We have to build bridges, not walls, between human beings, between musicians, between sounds. I believe listening to music helps us learn that unity is much more important.”


Article sponsored by Concerto Budapest. You can find the listings for all the events on the tour here.