Nicholas Kraemer, a conductor who thrives on defying expectatations

Tue Dec 08, 2009 at 12:49 am

By Wynne Delacoma

Nicholas Kraemer conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestar in music of Mozart, Haydn and Richard Strauss this week.

The English conductor was in Chicago for performances with Music of the Baroque where he has been principal guest conductor since 2002. On Monday his flight from England arrived so late that he simply stashed his luggage and raced off for an evening rehearsal.

“This is the beginning of a really crazy patch, which I don’t normally do,’’ said Kraemer, looking remarkably wide awake after that marathon Monday. “Back to back, I have five different engagements on three different continents.’’

Fit and slightly built, Kraemer is an animated, energetic man who prefers to bicycle rather than ride in a taxi or drive a car. Which could be one reason why he managed to survive a late fall schedule that included stops in Manchester, England; Chicago and Perth, West Australia (for performances of no less a musical marathon than Handel’s Messiah.)

Kraemer returns to town this week to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra  in an early Mozart divertimento, Haydn’s Symphony No. 88, selections from Telemann’s Tafelmusik II and, less expectedly, Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen.

A harpsichordist as well as batonsmith, Kraemer is best known as a Baroque specialist, and he made his CSO debut in 2007 with an all-Baroque program. Yet he has performed 18th and 19th century repertoire regularly and has a keen interest in contemporary music.

So, when the CSO asked him for a return engagement, he chose to add something unexpected to the mix.

“After the last concert,’’ said Kraemer referring to his CSO debut “I thought, ‘What shall we do? More of the same?’ Well, yes, in a sort of way. I love doing Haydn, so we chose another symphony, No. 88. I had gotten to know the [CSO principal oboe and trumpet players], so we decided upon the Tafelmusik II because there are [prominent] parts for both of them in that.

“Then I had a moment of madness,’’ said Kraemer, who has conducted ensembles ranging from the London Bach Orchestra to the Berlin Philharmonic. “I said, ‘One of my pieces is Strauss’ Metamorphosen. What about it?’  Instead of saying ‘Absolutely not. That’s not your territory,’ [CSO staff] said, ‘Why not? We haven’t done it for ages.’ I think it’s really enlightened of them to let me do that.”

Composed during the final months of World War II in 1945, the work for 23 solo strings is Strauss’ elegy for his German homeland devastated by war. It has held a significant place in Kraemer’s repertoire. “I’m very confident about that piece,’’ said Kraemer. “I’ve done it as often as Messiah.

It was a performance of Messiah that opened Kraemer’s ears to the world of Baroque music. His mother was an amateur violinist and music was a constant in the household. (The middle of three sons, Kraemer has a younger brother who performs with the English Concert, one of the world’s leading period-instrument ensembles.) He was studying violin and “playing around on the keyboard because I found it very easy.”

“I had a sort of road to Damascus moment,’’ he said, recalling his first encounter with Handel’s most famous oratorio. “I was about 10 or 11. My mother played in a Messiah every year, and she used to take me along to rehearsal sometimes. I couldn’t believe that anything could be so great. It was one of those performances with a big chorus. There was nothing subtle about it at all. It went straight to my throat.”

Kraemer began his career as a harpsichordist and gradually started conducting. In 1978 he founded an ensemble called the Raglan Baroque Players. He was fascinated by the sound both of period instruments and vocalists performing Baroque music. “Hearing singers sing with less vibrato,” said Kraemer, “that’s always appealed to me.”

Since interest in Baroque music began to revive in the 1950s, the field has been a hotbed of debate about exactly how it should be played. Compared with current classical music practice, Baroque music was originally performed in much more intimate settings by musicians using instruments that produced a leaner, more focused sound.

Though scholars and performers endlessly debate the fine points of Baroque performance such as tempo, ornamentation and proper bowing techniques, Kraemer is not dogmatic on the podium. And Baroque music has become so popular with audiences and musicians alike that orchestras such as the CSO, he said, are more than willing to play it as authentically as possible.

“I don’t think the CSO had ever played any Telemann in their 100-plus years,’’ said Kraemer about the selections from Telemann’s Tafelmusik III that he performed with the orchestra in 2007. “But [CSO concertmaster] Robert Chen, it was like he was born to it. There was absolutely no problem at all. And when you have a concertmaster who can do that, then everybody does it. I have a recording of that performance, and when I play it for people, they say, ‘Oh, a period-instrument orchestra.’ “

Robert Waters, now in his second season as MOB’s concertmaster, values Kraemer’s flexible approach.

“Nicholas is really a terrific combination of incredible discipline and rigor in terms of understanding the styles that he conducts,” said Waters, “and a very spontaneous and personal approach to the music as well. Nothing ever seems overly scripted or predictable in how he approaches the music.

“Particularly in the Baroque arena, there’s so much research and debate about what the proper approach is,’’ said Waters. “In some cases people become extremely dogmatic about the correct way of doing things. This is never Nicholas’ approach, even though he has a very deep understanding of this music.”

Flutist Mary Stolper has a unique perspective on Kraemer’s art.  One of the city’s most sought-after instrumentalists, she is principal flute with the Grant Park Orchestra and Chicago Opera Theater as well as Music of the Baroque, with many years logged as a regular sub with the CSO.

“What Nicholas does is, in many ways, kind of like Boulez,” said Stolper. “He’s so smart and so good at what he does. He plays with so many groups around the world. Many times he doesn’t have a lot of rehearsal time. He sees what are going to be the strengths and quickly takes them out and works on those.

“He brings his incredible depth in the genre, his overall vision, his energy, and he allows us to be part of the mix. He enjoys this music so much.  He’s smiling all the time when he’s conducting us. He truly is that happy. When you’re around somebody like that, it’s contagious.’’

Though Stolper wasn’t surprised by Kraemer’s initial success with the CSO, she knows how demanding the orchestra can be.

“Having subbed pretty much full time for 12 years, I have seen that orchestra shred somebody,” said Stolper with a knowing laugh. “To be asked back is a huge compliment. You bring your best game for them from the get-go, and they’ll still think [twice] about you. Those people don’t fool around.’’

Nicholas Kraemer conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Mozart, Haydn, Telemann and Strauss 8 p.m. Thursday, 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Center. www.cso.org; 312-294-3000.

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