Over the course of a five-decade career as one of the epoch’s outstanding musical artists, violinist Gidon Kremer has repeatedly tied his creative work to the tumultuous mast of current events. His service to the classical tradition and his tireless search for vital new compositional voices both dovetail with his consideration for what goes beyond music—the tragic events of our time, global hotspots, and individuals who have brought disquiet to millions. As Kremer tells us: “One cannot, alas, perform music as if it's an abstract activity.” So it was in the 1980s, and so it remains today. And just as in those years prior to glasnost, Kremer’s recent activism has been increasingly focused on one of his several homelands, Russia—the Russia incarnated in his “My Russia” and “Russia: Faces and Masks” projects as well as in concerts dedicated to Anna Politkovskaya and Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Alongside the blessings of his musical talent, the Lord gave Gidon Kremer a gift for words. (His numerous books provide eloquent testimony to this facility.) The following text is based on an interview conducted with Gidon Kremer for Colta.ru in November 2014. We spoke in Kiev, just before the debut of his project “Dedication to the Ukrainian People.”
I look squarely at things only when they really start worrying me.
The composer Karlheinz Stockhausen once claimed that he never read newspapers. The story goes that, after boarding an airplane (and he didn't exactly fly often), Stockhausen glanced through a few dailies and came to understand that there was, in essence, nothing of importance happening anywhere in the world.
One might ask, why not look at things abstractly? There are problems everywhere, and inevitably the press inflames them; one person may turn them to his advantage while another overcomes them, finding in the turmoil an opportunity to reveal himself. But this perspective is of no interest to me: an artist's life does not afford time for vain speculation. I keep busy at my own craft, with no desire to be a dilettante in any other. So I don't conduct; I resist helming that party. Maybe this is also why I don't teach, though I've experienced much interaction with the younger generation, and once David Oistrakh actually offered to take me on as his assistant. But even so flattering an offer from so great a teacher I had to refuse. I have always wished to consecrate myself solely to what I consider my calling: the life of a practicing musician.
But one cannot, alas, perform music as if it's an abstract activity. Whether we like it or not, sound is a reflection of reality—and, in equal measure, a reflection of the ideals that reside in our hearts. From this conflict between real life and our dreams, music is born—a kind of emotional bridge, spanning our hearts to the hearts of others.
We are moved not only by books and the paintings of the old masters; our everyday lives, the tragedies that surround us, can have the same effect. We can find echoes of these feelings in the work of nearly every composer, whether it be Mozart, Verdi, Mahler, Shostakovich, or Weinberg. Each reflects a reality, and we, the performers who serve the composer, are unwittingly drawn into the process. We can't allow ourselves to hide behind musical notation and beautiful manuscripts. We must come into contact with this reality. Oistrakh (to whom I remained close for eight years, during which time I was privileged to learn what loyalty to music means), Yehudi Menuhin (whom I’d admired since my youth for his generosity and singular voice), Mstislav Rostropovich (who’s personality, restlessness, and deep social engagement have influenced me), Pablo Casals (whom I never met, but whose interpretations of Bach have inspired me from the first), and Leonard Bernstein (with whom I so often shared music and the stage): they all lived inside of this reality. I am bound in my own way to each of these men, who were all far from indifferent to the fate of humanity, the workings of history, and its tragedies and catastrophes. Not wishing to place myself on the same level as any of them, I nonetheless feel as though I've taken up their collective baton. They were people who knew how to defend a position, how to stand up for what they held dearest—with their music as their words. Within the walls of the Moscow Conservatory, each taught me that being a musician means serving goodness, justice, and truth.
Of course, I could provide very different examples—composers whose music emanates coolness and self-love. There are performers who adapt to any audience and situation, serving not the music’s author but themselves, striving for maximum visibility and universal appeal. Internally, I find myself at odds with these practitioners (for one cannot call them “artists”). Unfortunately, many of the artists of the younger generation seem tempted to prove themselves in terms only of commercial and popular success.
When the worrisome developments of winter 2014 began, when the politicians started making decisions that were so egregious in their impropriety, when the notion that “Crimea is for Russians” was—what?—dreamed up, worked out, strategically calculated (I don't know what language to use, and would prefer, somehow, to keep it decent), something inside me stirred. And from the earliest days of the unrest I noticed that I was in close quarters with people—partners in my life as a performer—who saw things very differently indeed.
The confrontation provoked me. Not being Russian, perhaps I don't have the right to judge who is right and who is at fault. On the other hand, as a European, I understand full well that there exist international laws, agreements, and rules of play that have persisted for decades and that have been ratified by both the erstwhile Soviet authorities and those of today’s Russian Federation—and that having suddenly deemed all these laws invalid, somebody is rolling a dangerous set of dice. The ante in this game is corruption.
I realize I'm in the minority. But happily, reading and hearing what the best voices of that same Russia have to say, I find like minds with whom I, not being Russian, can identify. You won’t likely see me marching with them in a demonstration or adding my name to a joint letter of protest; the Soviet notion of a “group of comrades” has forever chilled my enthusiasm for joining any such cohort. I prefer to play, speak, and think for myself.
We all have our own inner values, transcending where we live and what surrounds us. We’re all obliged to heed the voices within. My own inner voice—never mind my international roots: Latvian, Swede, German, Jew…—sometimes urges me to count myself a Russian. And indeed the fate of Russia matters fiercely to me. No wonder: for decades, Russian remained the language I spoke most often.
It would be foolishness to write off the entire Russian people or to resolve to no longer perform works by Russian composers and to read Russian books. Russian, first and foremost, is a great language with a great culture. I'm referring not to a culture with only one population, but to a culture whose values offer nourishment to the whole world. It does so now, and it will certainly do so long into the future. Being in conflict with current developments, I find myself looking into these values more deeply than ever, so that I can uphold them against all the distortions taking place in Russia today. Dear to me are Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Desyatnikov, Gubaidulina, Schnittke, and Kissine. And what a joy it is to collaborate with brilliant artists like Mikhail Pletnev and Slava Polunin! And with Daniil Trifonov, the most gifted of pianists, with whom I recently toured the U.S. and (with my Kremerata Baltica) Europe. In the work of such people, I find the values that ground me.
When I think about the events of the past year, I find that the concept of "human life" has been profoundly devalued. What we are all given is a single life to share. If that sounds sentimental, so be it: it was Ostrovsky's opinion, and Brodsky's, and that of many others. And there are those today who want to destroy this notion of life as a physical and spiritual gift. It doesn't matter what they hide behind—politics, economics, ethics, religion. When talk turns into destruction, everything within me rises up. The Nazis murdered, the Bolsheviks killed, the Latvian gunmen fired. Once you have followed them, unable to respect the right to life of your neighbor, colleague, or brother, then it's a very short stretch from one victim to one million victims. How terrifying, that the person who sends another to kill and the person who is sent to kill are both infected with the belief that murder is the key to moving forward, to perfecting justice. The very people defending “their land,” “their language,” “their homes” become the unwitting victims of a tragic calculus. Some, denying others the right to question anything, call it “belief in an historic mission.”
Let me reduce this to a formulation so simple as to seem trivial in comparison with today's tragedy: when a couple splits up, one of them inevitably has to pack a bag and leave first. It happens sometimes that the one who ups and goes is in the right. Or that the one who stays behind is. But it rarely happens that both people pack their bags at once.
As for current events, this war is about more than just soldiers. First and foremost, it's a psychological war waged by the creators of political dogma. It's a way of instituting certain modes of thought—a form of brainwashing. Anybody who can allow himself to brainwash others is an instigator of this war. A certain nostalgia towards the “great Soviet Union” is, in a way, a blindness, a denial of all the negative issues that system perpetuated. Alfred Schnittke once said, referring to Thomas Mann, that the demonic, like the vulgar, lives right among us. It's crucial that we identify those issues, recognize them. But the artist who takes leave of this recognition, pretending not just that it's harmless, but actually beginning to affiliate himself with it—in my opinion, he betrays his own calling and talent.
It saddens me to see colleagues on the other side of the barricades, marshaling themselves to the cause of those detestable measures ostensibly taken in the name of justice. What a shame that, for all their talent, these artists have proved unable to assess the situation objectively, to hold to fundamental ethical standards or at least to raise questions. Maybe they never learned how to do this—after all, they grew up in the Soviet Union, where values quite different from European ones were instilled. Perhaps these same colleagues view me with similar disappointment: “Just look how this mongrel from the miserable Baltic gazes at our exalted tribe.” And that's their right. I won't fight with them. But neither do I have any great desire to share a stage with them.
Is it possible for a musician to confront this unfolding horror? To speak of such confrontation is ridiculous. What are you going to do with your little violin—even one, let's say, that is four hundred years old? You're one voice among millions, a droplet in the vast ocean. We all have our own lives to live. For me, it's important to play the music I believe in, music that makes itself listen, that broadens one’s emotional horizons and ways of looking at world, and that (just maybe) helps someone to reach new conclusions, different ones, without coming down from on high. Through the singular voice of a violin—not every violin, but some ideal violin, ideal cello, ideal piano, ideal voice—the purity that we need,—that we needed before, and that we will still need in the future,—breaks through. I strive to be on familiar terms with this purity.
Which is by no means to say that I am always successful. But it seems perfectly natural that I felt the urge to head to Kiev, to bring with me a small trace of that purity: a piece by Giya Kancheli whose title, Angels of Sorrow, speaks for itself. It is dedicated, not coincidentally, to “all innocent victims.” I, with my violin; my life partner, Giedre Dirvanauskaite, with her cello; the wonderful Shchedryk Children's Choir; my old friend maestro Roman Kofman and his Kiev Chamber Orchestra: we all came together to clear the air of deadly noise, filth, and falsehoods. And to imagine (even if only for twenty-five minutes) a totally different picture of the world. A world full of sorrow at everything that is happening around us.
In the evening, after rehearsing in Philharmonic Hall, Giedre and I left our hotel and quietly walked across the Maidan. We had only to look at the sheer number of photographs of beautiful faces surrounded by flowers and candles to realize how many innocents had been killed. And that was only a small part of the daily reality here. Every human life has value. I am deliberately avoiding a discussion of who has killed more, who is doing the defending, who is the aggressor… A process of destruction is unfolding, and it is a massive crime, one that every leader in every country around the world has an obligation to help halt by any means.
I have always loved traveling to Ukraine. In such troubling times, it's all the more important to be surrounded by those you love. My Ukraine is, first and foremost, people, artists. People like Roman Kofman, an outstanding conductor, who has played an important role in my own life. Also, of course, the composer Valentin Silvestrov—a man of the purest heart, one deeply affected by what he and his countrymen have lived through. I can only express my solidarity with his position. And there is the composer Victoria Polevá, in whose mystery play Transforma (also performed in Kiev) I felt parallels with the anxious state of our world. Some young conservatory students performed for us: a recently formed ensemble called Artehatta, along with the violinist Myroslava Kotorovych (who was, by the way, a member of Kremerata Baltica for many years). How wonderful it was to see the idealism pulsing through their music-making! They are the true patriots!
I feel great sympathy for all the people of Ukraine, caught now beneath the treads of ideological barbarism. Argue all you want about who's fighting whom, older brother with younger, or younger with older: when elephants tussle, it's the grass that suffers.
Have I no sympathy, you might ask, for those in Eastern Ukraine who find themselves on the other side of the conflict? Of course I do. A huge mass of people are living there who haven't done anything wrong, who have had no choice but to offer their destiny up to the ruling powers through legal means. Maybe I'm a blind optimist with no mind for politics, but I think this may be the case. And if steps have not been taken in the past by the authorities (officials who, incidentally, originate from those lands), it is absolutely necessary for the present authorities to act. It makes no difference whether you're rich or poor, strong or weak, a Russian speaker or Ukrainian. I'll say again that we all share this same life, and it's your country's job to establish conditions such that you can live however you wish—and not in the manner prescribed by someone else.
How do I see this all ending? As an artist, when you walk out on stage, you don’t think about how many people will be applauding at the end. You're just trying to get to the heart of the work you're performing. It always makes me happy when the music forces people to listen, and silence comes over the hall. It doesn't matter whether you get a standing ovation or three faint claps. I well know that those who actually hear what the composer, or my onstage collaborators and I, wanted to say will always be in the minority. But even if it’s a minority of only thirty people, it’s satisfying all the same to know someone has grasped the essence of the work, that we have transmitted it and, perhaps, the ideals in whose name I have organized many humanitarian concerts (like “Musica Liberat” in Strasbourg and “To Russia with Love” in Berlin, Leipzig, and Dresden). The performers in these events were kindred spirits and first-class musicians: Evgeny Kissin, Martha Argerich, Mischa Maisky, Daniel Barenboim, Anatoly Kotcherga, and many others, including, of course, the artists of Kremerata Baltica, who for eighteen years now have stood beside me for all my projects, risks, and adventures.
Perhaps my opponents will say that my projects present a certain vision of the ideal social order. But I would respond with the words my wonderful teacher, the great Oistrakh, generously offered me: “I would never start doing what you do. But you must keep doing it, because you're right.” I would advise each man to walk his own path. Let me emphasize that I say his own path: this means not letting himself be scrambled by what's going on around him. It means understanding that all human life is one, and that it should be consecrated to objective values, not to rulers. It means speaking with one's own voice, and not that of some party, fraternity, or school. It means focusing on honesty before God. It means never forgetting that those who applaud you, lift you up, give you orders, and even those who consider you the greatest of all, might always be mistaken. Tastes and judgments differ. But truth is something that, given time, always shines through. And even when only the quietest people see this truth, it exists. Never stray from it! Before you depart this life, you will be asked why you did what you did.
My older daughter Lika lives and works as a journalist in Russia. It's important to me to stay in contact with her, her children, and, of course, my colleagues—composers, musicians, ensembles, performance partners. But I prefer to speak the truth, and I will not change where I stand on important matters just to please those who decide whether I'm welcome or not. For many years, I was denied an exit visa from the Soviet Union. And then later, having acquired the right to live abroad, I was denied the right to return until the very beginning of perestroika. But I've always conducted my affairs in the same way, and have never subscribed to the idea that I should bend my conscience (as an artist or as a human being) just to secure residence papers.
My compatriot, the Latvian theater director Alvis Hermanis, was recently denied a visa to enter Russia, this despite the fact that it was in Moscow of all places, at the Theater of Nations, that he staged one of the greatest performances I have ever had the good fortune of witnessing, The Shukshin Stories. Being Latvian, he managed to speak about the Russian soul in ways that an actual Russian probably could not have. Even the local authorities agreed! And in this, we see the whole contradiction: the same people that heartily praised the production closed their eyes to the fact that Hermanis had been denied entry. Under such a system, the artist who is not afraid, who doesn't want to appease, is automatically rendered extraneous.
If someone were to declare that I have become too dour, or that I have done some harm to Russian culture, I will be saddened. But that will never be cause enough to change my orientation towards culture, towards life itself. In the end, this is what remains: I wish to serve the legacy of what has been achieved through the enduring of suffering.
I am greatly strengthened in this conviction by a lecture given by an amazing woman, the poet and philosopher Olga Sedakova. She has won my utmost admiration, and I would like to recommend her work to as many readers as possible. The title of her lecture speaks for itself: Mediocrity as a Social Danger.
And finally I wish to mention Kremerata Baltica’s most recent project, a joint venture with a brilliant Russian painter, writer, and philosopher Maxim Kantor. It is called “Russia: Masks and Faces” and is based on Maxim’s paintings and the well-known work by Modest Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition (I therefore called it “Pictures at Another Exhibition”), along with music by the Ukrainian composers Igor Loboda and Silvestrov.
I am pleased that we were able to present it in many cities, including Klaipėda, Milan, Brussels, Luxembourg, and San Sebastián. It makes me especially proud that we could also perform it in Odessa, one of Ukraine’s most beautiful cities, a city with such a healthy, strong multicultural tradition. I wish more people could show tolerance and openness like I experienced it in Odessa, where the Russian language is spoken along with Ukrainian and many others, and where the local “slang” is full of humor and life, making it a kind of music. This music is certainly stronger than any ideology imposed by politicians.
Translated from the Russian by Ian Dreiblatt
Gidon Kremer is a violinist whose repertoire is unusually extensive, encompassing the standard classical and romantic violin works as well as twentieth-century music. He is a tireless champion of the world’s finest contemporary composers.
Roman Yusipey is a Ukrianian accordionist and music journalist. He has collaborated extensively with contemporary composers, premiering numerous works for button accordian. He studies at the Folkwang University in Essen, Germany, with Prof. Mie Miki.