Articles by and about James Kreger

Meeting the Interpreters: Interview with James Kreger

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James Kreger, the American virtuoso, explains his musical philosophy. His recent recording devoted to the Dvořák and Herbert cello concertos, which follows by one year the CD devoted to Mendelssohn — enthusiastically reviewed in this magazine — gave us the right opportunity for a short conversation with James Kreger, soloist of great sensitivity and warmth.

Maestro Kreger, could you describe for us the artistic itinerary that made possible for you to develop your characteristic, distinct sound?

James Kreger

Photo by Robert Preston

Since my first encounter with music, I understood that I was facing a door that, once open, would reveal all its essence: expression, emotions, hidden meanings and a feeling for infinity. I have always been carried away by music. Many people are accustomed to believe that for a musician the "sound" represents a characteristic sign, a "signature". Instead, I firmly believe that my sound is a projection of my soul. However, I must add that this is not always true. First, one must know what type of sound one wants to achieve, which is not always easy: it's enough to think how seldom one knows oneself. In fact, in order to identify our own sound, it is necessary to know ourselves. But, the mere act of listening to other musicians can lead to imitation of certain models. In any case, however hard we try to adhere to these models, this type of emulation is limited by the spontaneous affirmation of our own personality. Usually what we like or what attracts us are the things that we know best. To give you an example, when we hear a certain type of sound — or, more precisely, when we feel the emotion that this sound produces in us — we automatically feel compelled to reproduce it. Naturally, it is not possible to reproduce a sound with absolute precision. Every time we try it, the sound changes according to our mood and this way, however unconsciously, we create a personal sound. Even Bach took as models music of other composers, both his contemporaries and predecessors, and, transforming it, he made the music his own. When I was a child I listened to many 78 rpm records. The first recording I remember is a Beethoven 5th interpreted by the NBC Orchestra, conducted by Toscanini. I was then, I believe, seven years old and remember I was completely conquered! I remember the desire to be able to enter "inside" the music as a performer, a real "celebrant." From that moment I decided to be part of this world and to this aim I asked to study cello and piano (since in Nashville, TN it was impossible to learn to play the saxophone, the instrument that I would have liked, more than any other!). Meanwhile I began to listen to other recordings, which we had at home, discovering Ormandy, Heifetz, Casals, Kreisler, Caruso, Gigli, McCormack... Furthermore, I had the good luck to attend concerts of great artists, like Moiseiwitsch grappling with Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto. As you can see, in answer to your question, I am not talking of the stages that allowed me to develop any particular sound, because I am firmly convinced that one's sound originates from the fantasy and experiences that life produces. Obviously, it is necessary to dedicate oneself to technique, because it is only thanks to technique that one can last in time. To understand this, it's enough to think of Maggie Teyte: it is only thanks to her extraordinary vocal technique that she could sing until a very old age. In addition, there are musicians who possess a sound of great beauty, which however, unfortunately, is unable to communicate anything. A true sound must possess its own meaning; it cannot be simply a reflection of itself. A true sound must throw wide open the door to the infinite universe of emotions and meanings! Casals — like many other interpreters of the past — could play just one note and the audience was already conquered. It is difficult to talk of sound. We could analyze in detail the objective qualities (sweetness, richness, opulence, etc.), but without the certainty of answering the gist of the question, since its main characteristic is its imponderable magic. Instead, it would be better to pay attention to what is "inside" and "behind" the sound. Maria Callas did not have a voice with a particularly beautiful sound but, differently from a very large number of singers of yesterday as well as today, who limit themselves to execute a role, she knew how to identify herself with the character.

In the external controversy which opposes the interpreters who want to remain faithful to the text to those who want a greater freedom, on whose side are you?

I am firmly convinced that we must always and in any way remain faithful to the text. However, we must always evaluate what we are concerned with. In certain cases it is necessary to alter the text to make its meaning more clear. Anyway, this happens only in extreme cases.

When you study a new score, what approach do you take? How do you immerse yourself in the poetics of a composer or of a stylistic movement?

When I study a new score (but this applies to any score), my main objective is to try to enter into the personal world of the composer and of his/her music, which probably is very different from that in which we live today. It could be another dimension or — as many say — the other side of the mirror. To give an example, Mendelssohn's music has markedly human qualities. His genius, especially in his youth, can be compared to that of Mozart. Yet Mendelssohn's music presents very lofty cues, which do not reflect the pain and miseries that affect the world in which we live. Some way, Mendelssohn always succeeds to rise above the daily realities. Dvořák's works, on the contrary, encompass an enormous diversity of emotions, most of which have been only superficially touched (if not downrightly avoided) by Mendelssohn's music. When I study a new score, I always try to identify with its emotional center: to this aim I rely on many elements, structure, the kind of sound, the palette of colours, the rhythmic impulse...

Often one speaks of the analogy that arguably links the cello to the human voice...

Undoubtedly the cello possesses qualities fully comparable to those of the human voice. Therefore, who plays the cello disposes of almost all aspects of the voice. Even words can be expressed by the cello. The cello is able to sing, to speak and to reveal a soul from time to time lyric or dramatic better than any other instrument. One can reproduce on the cello almost all the colours and tonalities of the human voice. There is virtually no limit to its emotional richness. For me, the cello has an extraordinary propensity to give body to the refrain. I always think of the Italian expression "filo di voce." One must never forget this!

What do you think of the current "coldness" that characterises many sound recordings, often made in small-size isolated rooms?

When a musician uses a recording studio, he/she has many advantages and possibilities that do not exist in a live concert. However, in spite of this it is important to be very careful, because if one pays too much attention to the sound, he/she ends up being too cold. When I record I try to think of the well disposed public of listeners who will hear my interpretation. This virtual audience helps me a lot and spurs me always to give the best of myself. In a live concert an energy level is created that is absolutely fantastic! What happens is a marvellous interchange between interpreter and audience who, united, enjoy the inspiration and the ecstasy.

How do you achieve this marvellous equilibrium between rigorous reading of the score and interpretative freedom?

My objectives are expressing the passions and the sentiment but also a certain control. For this reason I very much admire the interpretative style of Sviatoslav Richter. At times he completely relies on his instinct, but these instances in the life of an artist must remain almost an exception. My starting point is always the score, but in no way neglecting spontaneity. Here what you called "interpretative freedom" comes to play. When it is possible, I like to imagine to "be" the music, just like a great actor immerses him/herself in his/her character. There are artists who impersonate themselves in the role they interpret, at least for the duration of the theatrical production or the composition in which they are the protagonist. It is important for me to feel and believe that these artists do not limit themselves to merely playing the cello. I want them to become all one with the instrument. When they enter the world of music, they themselves should become music!

Translation: Eugenio Lari

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Cellist James Kreger