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For violinist, music is the most important thing

Gidon Kremer brings his mission to the BSO

By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / November 9, 2005

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NEW YORK -- They say Gidon Kremer is possessed when he performs. The violinist laughs at this.

''You can be possessed by dreams, you can be possessed by power," he said last week in his dressing room at Lincoln Center after rehearsing for an appearance with the New York Philharmonic. ''I'm just trying to concentrate as much as I can on this particular performance. Not last night's performance, not tomorrow's performance."

Kremer, who performs this week with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is physically slight, with spindly legs and arms. At 58, he's developed a small Buddha belly and a thinning rim of gray hair. After a concert, he confesses, he is so tired ''I almost have to fall down."

But when he stands in front of an orchestra, his physical stature seems to grow.

Daniel Phillips, a violinist and friend, compares experiencing Kremer in concert to a visit to an art museum.

''Sometimes, in a museum, you pass by a painting and sort of enjoy it," says Phillips, a violin professor at the Aaron Copland School of Music of Queens College. ''With Gidon, he wants you to get right next to the painting and get right next to the brush strokes."

Kremer remains one of classical music's road warriors, a player known for his range, intensity, and onstage stamina. The Latvian violinist has developed a reputation for marathon performances of several concertos in the same program, including two with the BSO, in 1992 and last year. When he's not traveling to symphony halls, he's at his Paris home or in Riga, Latvia, working with his fledgling chamber orchestra, Kremerata Baltica. There is never enough time for his daughters, or for walks, or for anything but his music, he says, with only slight regret. This is, after all, his choice.

''This lifestyle, I would not wish it on either of my children," Kremer says. ''For myself, I just feel that I was given a chance to be this provider of some kind of quality of music, some understanding of music, a provider of some spiritual message, and that's why I feel I should be loyal."

Kremer is particularly loyal to Alfred Schnittke, the late composer whose Concerto Grosso No. 5 Kremer premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1991. This week, Kremer will perform it at Symphony Hall for the first time with the BSO.

Mikko Franck, the 26-year-old wunderkind who conducted Kremer in the Philharmonic's performance of the Schnittke work last week, said he is impressed by Kremer's commitment to the music. During rehearsals, the violinist would walk over to Franck, politely point out details in the score, and relate them to the section violinists behind him.

''Nowadays in the musical world there are many elements that are considered important," Franck says. ''The marketing, the PR -- what kind of dress you wear, how many buttons are undone on your shirt. Those kinds of things. And sometimes the music gets lost. With him, that's not a problem. He really thinks music is the most important thing."

Growing up in Latvia, Kremer got his first violin at 4 and won a series of prizes in his early 20s, including the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1970. The violinist has done dozens of interviews since his first concerts in the West in 1975. Yet he shows only a limited interest in publicity. During a 40-minute interview at the Philharmonic, Kremer's eyes constantly dart to the clock on the wall above. The orchestra's music director, Lorin Maazel, is waiting in the hall downstairs. He wants to hear Kremer, onstage and during the rehearsal break, try out a violin the Philharmonic is considering buying. Kremer also needs a nap.

When he does talk, though, Kremer doesn't hold back. Speaking softly, in his still-thick accent, he reflects in several-minute bursts, like a diver rising to the surface only to fill his lungs with air. And there is always that smile, which takes on a weary edge when he describes a life driven by work.

Why does he play violin? ''Fate," he says, explaining that he was born into a family of musicians.

His days, he says, are lonely. He loves his chamber orchestra, though ''my life would be much easier if I wouldn't have founded it."

So why not slow down? This is when he talks of his mission.

''There is so much trash in the department of music," Kremer says, refusing to name names. ''We are all aware of brilliant instrumentalists who have nothing to say. They're like figures at a wax museum. They pretend to be full-blooded, but they can't be because for a full-blooded person, it takes much more nerve and insecurity."

That sense of adventure, he says, is what defines what he chooses to play and record. Though he performs Brahms, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky, Kremer's recordings, notably for Nonesuch, have also championed new music, including Philip Glass, John Adams, and Astor Piazzolla. He says his agents and business managers have tried to get him to stick with a more standard repertoire.

Kremer says a thirst for variety also drives his stage career. He will go for years without playing certain classical staples and then, after unearthing them, feel himself taking a fresh approach.

After years of touring, Kremer acknowledges he sometimes feels worn down.

''I'm not going to fitness clubs, which is a mistake," he says. ''I'm not swimming enough. I'm not taking enough vitamins. I'm not exercising. I admit it all. I should do more for my body, more to get relaxed, to lay down and just be."

But for now, he embraces his fate. He will never be a household name like Itzhak Perlman or Yo-Yo Ma. But he has made his mark.

''I was once asked what I wanted written on my gravestone," Kremer says. ''At the time, I said, 'He lived, he played, he died.' "

Gidon Kremer performs with the Boston Symphony Orchestra tomorrow, Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday. 888-266-1200, www.bso.org.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.