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French Version

Al-Bustan Festival departs from classical and romantic mainstream

Gidon Kremer and Andrii Pushkarov combine Baroque and contemporary works

For the last few years, the Al-Bustan Festival has been dominated by European classical and romantic music - a well-worn path from Haydn and Mozart to Beethoven and Schumann, with diversions to hear Dvorjak and some of the Italians - and a bit of ancient and 20th-century music thrown in for the adventurous. The festival's 2005 program has departed this comfortable middle ground, featuring more acts with a modern or baroque repertoire.

Latvian violin virtuoso Gidon Kremer and Ukrainian percussionist Andrii Pushkarov, who took command of the Emile Bustani auditorium for a one-night presentation Wednesday evening, combine baroque and contemporary works in the same performance. Concert-goers who haven't invested in the festival program may assume that they'll be getting a good slab of unadulterated Bach, and that the "contemporary music" in question is the light, tango-inflected work of Astor Piazzolla (1921-1999). What they actually get is something a bit more challenging.

It isn't' every day that an audience in Beirut's environs can listen to "Prelude in memoriam Dmitri Schostakovich" by Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) - "inspired" by Bach via Schostakovich, who effectively effaced all traces of the baroque - "Crux, for violin, kettledrum and bells" by Lubos Fiser (1935-1999) or "Duo" ("a variation on a theme of Bach" that, being atonal, is utterly lacking in pop baroque sensibility) by Vladimir Kobekin (b1947). It's indeed rare to hear these works along with Piazzolla and Bach, as rendered by someone of Kremer's caliber, even if he seems to be less than completely engaged with the material.

Kremer, who has won numerous awards including a Grammy in 2002 for his album "After Mozart," isn't a chatty performer. He strides, wordlessly, onto the stage with an expression of vague discomfort on his face, addresses the audience with a brief bow and a smile, then turns his attention to Schnittke's music. Atonal and discordant, the piece moves forward in limping, angular strides, brusque bow strokes accompanied by periodic pizzicato on the neck of the instrument with his little finger.

Done, the violinist marches back offstage, leaving the audience mute after its applause. He returns with the younger and apparently more amiable Pushkarov. The two men bow to the room and turn their attention to Kobekin's "Duo." It is a more tentatively dissonant work than "Prelude," the chords lurching from Kremer's violin like shards of glass - generally reflecting atonal qualities but sometimes mirroring the romantic, the classical, at one point a hoedown sensibility. Pushkarov's role in the piece is minimal - pulling gentle reverberations from a single cymbal.

The piece ends, Pushkarov picks up his cymbal and the pair march off stage again, leaving the audience to rumbling, gesticulating conversation, as if wondering what the pair has in store for them next.

Fortunately for the lovers of baroque in the room when Kremer returns, alone, for the third piece of the evening it turns out to be Bach - the chaconne from his violin sonata BWV1004. The piece seems to be popular among modernist violinists - a few summers ago Nigel Kennedy opened his otherwise all-Hendrix Beiteddine show with it - possibly because the sharp lines and intensity of its movement evoke a great deal of emotion.

Kremer's attack has the same angular, fractured intensity found in the contemporary pieces though on the whole his approach is less reckless than Kennedy's, for instance. Equally unchanging are his range of facial expressions while playing. His attitude is one of a man struggling through a difficult conversation with an intelligent and antagonistic colleague and/or a difficult lover - at times affectionate, often stern and generally dyspeptic.

Pushkarov returns to the stage for another atonal tour de force, Fiser's "Crux, for violin, kettledrum and bells." With Kremer navigating the intricate latticework of the solo violin, Pushkarov provides a minimalist accompaniment that accelerates and becomes louder with every passing beat. He reaches his crescendo prematurely (as it were) moving over for a cord or two on the bells while Kremer's bow ascends to its final shudder.

The audience is released for a cigarette and a drink. They return to find that, for the more melodic second half of the concert, the violinist will be accompanied by xylophone - playing Piazzolla and Bach. The Bach, "The Inventionen," is one of the several practice exercises the composer devised for his children's study of the clavichord. Here it has been rearranged with a jazz aftertaste by the percussionist himself.

There is a long, much-respected tradition of jazz interpretations of Bach (the composer was himself skilled at keyboard improvization). Many of the best loved of these are performed on piano. Whether Pushkarov's instrument of choice bears with it unfortunate echoes of jolly evenings with Lawrence Welk or James Last is a matter of taste and background.

There are solid aesthetic and commercial reasons for combining such apparently incongruous composers on the same bill.

The commercial reasons are obvious. It's hard to draw a crowd to an evening of straight contemporary music, simply because most casual aficionados would rather be comforted than challenged. They pay money for strong performances of soothing anachronisms, not intelligent musical engagement with the razor-wire late-20th century.

Typically, then, programs featuring this contemporary-baroque mix put the new stuff before the interval (while the audience is still awake) and the melodious fluff afterward (so the customers leave with a sweet taste in their mouths).

This was more or less the pattern of the Kremer-Pushkarov show.
That isn't to say you should be too skeptical of such musical gene-splicing.

Interesting art can occasionally come of this commercial imperative. Both the Kronos Quartet and Nigel Kennedy - to draw upon Lebanon's recent concert memory - have fiddled with ancient music with positive results.

Kennedy has recorded Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" not once but twice. Done in the 1980s, his first go at the old warhorse - which he remarked at the time was akin to a series of hit singles - was so popular it long held the record for most heavily consumed "classical" cd in history. The second effort, released just before Kennedy's shows at Beiteddine a couple of years ago, is more startlingly discordant - and confirms the value of contemporary interpretation of old music.

More challenging is the minimalist approach of Kronos' "Lachrymae Antiquae," a brilliant mixture of "ancient" - medieval, renaissance and baroque - music with that of some spiritually pre-occupied 20th-century masters.

Kronos offers the strongest aesthetic argument for putting old music in the hands of performers preoccupied with advancing today's composers. Contemporary interpretations offer a revitalizing counterpoise to "period" performance - which attempts to cut through all the layers of subsequent interpretation to

Beirut,02 28 2005
Jim Quilty
The Daily Star
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