That's No Rock Star Exploding Onstage; It's Soviet Violin Virtuoso Gidon Kremer

updated 05/03/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/03/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Onstage, he looks like a Russian version of Ichabod Crane impersonating Mick Jagger. The Stradivarius tucked beneath his bony chin, the thinning fine hair flying, he bends deeply at the knees, then stretches up on tiptoe, then shakes his head violently on the comedown. Down, down into another knee-bend. He once ended a rehearsal on his knees, one ear to the floor.

Despite such acrobatics, the fame of Gidon Kremer as an inspired classical violinist has spread far outside his native Latvia, and so has his reputation as an eccentric. "He is inscrutable," says a colleague. "The possibility of his existing is highly improbable."

His peculiar genius lies in his astonishing ability to bring a fresh interpretation to such classics as Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto and Vivaldi's Four Seasons, as well as his eye and ear for discovering new works by composers like Russia's Alfred Schnittke. "Gidon does musical projects which challenge him," says his manager, Sheldon Gold. "His basis of planning is not financial."

Appropriately, Kremer, 35, is an unreconstructed Soviet citizen who has not defected and has not embraced capitalism, although he's now pulling in $10,000 a performance and has played with nearly every top U.S. orchestra. "I am such a simple man," he explains. "After a concert, give me a glass of water and a potato and I am happy."

"He goes to absurd lengths just to prove that point," adds artist's rep Agnes Bruneau, a Hungarian refugee and Kremer's closest U.S. friend. During one Manhattan visit, she reports, he rejected a top hotel in favor of a dingy one for the elderly. Explains Bruneau: "He was depressed and wanted to find an atmosphere to match his mood. He enjoyed staying with those people."

Kremer grew up in a two-and-a-half-room apartment in Riga, Latvia, where he took up the violin at 4 and practiced in the kitchen. Music was the family's life. His grandfather was the renowned German violinist Karl Brückner, and his parents were violinists with the Riga symphony orchestra. Gidon's father, a Jew, had escaped from the city's ghetto during the Nazi occupation, although 35 of his relatives, including his first wife and his daughter, were killed. "There was no question that I would become a musician," Gidon says. "It was only a question of how good."

After music school in Riga (where Mikhail Baryshnikov was a fellow student), Kremer studied at the Moscow Conservatory. For eight years he was a pupil of famed Soviet virtuoso David Oistrakh. "I wasn't a genius, not even a child prodigy," insists Kremer. "I made it—very slow. I am a case of enormous will." He was finally launched professionally when in 1970, at age 23, he won the famed Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. By 1975 he was being allowed to play outside Russia frequently, and he soon scored a series of triumphs. Conductor Herbert von Karajan emotionally hailed him as "the world's greatest violinist."

In February 1980 a Kremer concert scheduled in Moscow was inexplicably canceled. Unsure about his status, Gidon decided to remain in the West. He has since taken an apartment in Paris and a studio in Lucerne with his pianist second wife, Elena. (His first marriage, to a violinist, ended in divorce.) Yet Kremer vows, "I want always to keep my relation with the Russian audience I grew up with." That may be possible, since he recently received word from Moscow that he remains an artist in good standing in the U.S.S.R.

At the moment he and Elena are touring in separate countries, and Kremer moans, "I feel like a dog that somebody should take care of." The violinist looks like a serious engineering student, but in fact he is a witty punster. His pastimes include pawing through music in stores, searching for obscure compositions and going to movies. He likes the rock groups Genesis, Pink Floyd and King Crimson.

Summers, the Kremers retreat to Lockenhaus, Austria, where he has launched a two-week chamber music "antifestival." He explains: "We have no financial support, so we do not pay ourselves. The point is not to make money, but to make music." The idea embodies his scorn of classical superstars. "Too much, musicians think only of importance and money," he scoffs. "What is important to them are the big cities, big orchestras, big names." Although he is already being dragged, kicking and screaming, into their midst, "I am actually against the cult of stars," he insists. "Audiences are coming to listen to names. They should be coming to listen to composers."

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