Julian Kreeger marks a quarter-century of bringing the finest chamber music to Miami
Mischa Elman was displeased.
The legendary Ukrainian violinist, famous for his gorgeous tone, had just read an article in The New York Times on the world’s greatest violinists. Absent from the list: Mischa Elman.
At the suggestion of his manager, Elman went on the classical radio show of a young Columbia University student named Julian Kreeger, and an hour later he came away a changed man. “We treated him as a great historical figure among violinists, which he was,” said Kreeger, now a Miami lawyer and organizer of chamber music concerts. “He was a great artist who was treated with the respect he was entitled to.”
Showing appreciation for leading classical musicians is one of Kreeger’s gifts, and one that has served him well as he completes his 25th season at the head of Friends of Chamber Music of Miami, an organization that has presented some of the finest and most consistently excellent concerts in South Florida.
A genial, rumpled presence at the University of Miami’s Gusman Conccert Hall, Kreeger is among the small and disappearing group of leading independent presenters who have helped make South Florida a surprisingly rich place for live classical music.
“I wanted to do what I could to bring world-class performers to Miami, continue the good work of Friends of Chamber Music that started in 1955, and do it at affordable ticket prices,” said Kreeger, who presents his final concert of the season this Sunday. “I tried to bring to Miami some things that you might not expect.”
Although the music world places a premium on great performers, Kreeger is one of the world’s great listeners. His Miami Beach residence houses about 25,000 records.
He has heard, in their prime, pianists such as Arthur Rubinstein, Lazar Berman, Emil Gilels, Sviatoslav Richter (including all seven of his legendary 1960 New York recitals at Carnegie Hall) and violinists such as Henryk Szeryng, Nathan Milstein and Zino Francescatti.
He loves to talk music, and at the faintest expression of interest, will burn a set of CDs and put them in the mail. He co-founded the record label Audiofon, devoted to musicians and repertoire, particularly for the piano, that he feels have been ignored by larger companies.
Prominent musicians value his opinion because praise from Julian Kreeger comes not as the usual flattery of the local chamber music board chairman but as the informed appreciation of a man with a vast knowledge of music. While he has endured countless artist managers pitch a violinist as playing “like Heifetz” or a pianist “like Horowitz,” unlike many, Kreeger can rattle off the distinctions among various interpretations of the Beethoven piano sonatas.
“He knows what we do, he appreciates what we do,” said Joseph Kalichstein, pianist of the Kalichstein Laredo Robinson Trio, among the regular ensembles at Kreeger’s concerts. “He’s dedicated to musicians, just caring for us as people and recognizing how hard it is to do what we do. We’re certainly not products to him.”
Kreeger grew up on Riverside Drive and 112th Street in Manhattan, the son of an insurance agent. He sharpened his mind on the Talmud at Yeshiva University High School and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree at Columbia. Moving with his family to South Florida, he studied law at the University of Miami and opened a general commercial practice with a specialty in entertainment law. He teaches part-time at the University of Miami Law School. His wife Judith has just announced her retirement as a Miami-Dade Circuit Court judge.
Like most presenters, Kreeger brings established groups to Miami such as the KLR ensemble, the Talich Quartet and various pianists.
But what may be unique is his preference for assembling starry chamber groups from among the prominent musicians he knows around the country. Like the sommelier of a Lyons restaurant, who knows his wines, dishes and customers, Kreeger knows intimately the musical and personal strengths of a vast range of musicians, using that knowledge to assemble piano quintets, sextets and other odd combinations of instruments unlikely to be offered by management companies.
“It’s easy to hire string quartets,” he said. “But if you want someone to play a Brahms quintet or Schubert quintet or Schumann piano quartet or quintet you have to put it together. It’s a challenge to find people who work well together.”
At one memorable concert, after a pianist couldn’t it make it for a planned event, he persuaded the violin and cellist of the Paris Trio and Ysaÿe Quartet to combine forces for Schoenberg’s string sextet Verklärte Nacht, the composer’s otherworldly, agonized farewell to tonality. He told the ensembles’ manager, “If you want the concert, you can have the concert, but do Verklärte Nacht. “It was one of the most beautiful performances I’d ever been to,” Kreeger said. “You wouldn’t have guessed the sextet would have this rich sonority in the hall, from any of the recordings. It always sounds thin in recordings.”
The cellist William DeRosa, who performs on Kreeger’s series Sunday in piano quartets of Mozart and Schumann, said Kreeger’s gift for assembling groups brings an electricity to performances that’s sometimes absent from the concerts of established groups that perform together routinely.
“He finds it very exciting to put together three or four soloists,” DeRosa said. “Obviously you’re not going to get the polished performance of people playing together for seven or eight years. But you get something different and exciting, and he loves that, the big grand style of playing.”
Bill Capone, a New York manager of several prominent ensembles and soloists, said Kreeger brings an old-fashioned, personal approach to music at a time when most chamber music organizations are run by committees. Kreeger has a particular expertise in pianists, and Capone counted on this when he pitched him the virtually unknown Ukrainian pianist Nareh Arghamanyan.
“This was her first time on the professional circuit in the US,” Capone said. “I talked to Julian and gave him a CD, and he was very impressed by her. And that’s something he likes to do, present new talent to Miami. He takes a chance on an unknown because he has the knowledge and confidence to make a decision.”
Kreeger is among the best known presenters in the chamber music world. Arnold Steinhardt, first violinist of the Guarneri String Quartet, recounts in his memoirs a concert on Kreeger’s series. Backstage at Gusman Hall, Kreeger said he wanted to make a short public announcement.
“Julian went on and on,” Steinhardt wrote. Finally wrapping up, Kreeger tried to open the door to get off stage. But the quartet’s violist held it shut from the other side, as the audience started laughing at the hapless presenter. They finally allowed him to open the door. “Framed in the doorway, with the stage lights bathing him ghoulishly from behind, Julian threatened to not take us to the Versailles restaurant after the concert.”
“We have slightly different versions,” Kreeger said last week. “I never threatened to not take them to Versailles.”
Friends of Chamber Music of Miami presents piano quartets of Mozart and Schumann performed by violinist MIkhail Simonyan, violist Cynthia Phelps, cellist William De Rosa and pianist Joseph Kalichstein. Concert time is 4 p.m. Sunday at the University of Miami’s Gusman Concert Hall. Call 305-372-2975 or go to http://miamichambermusic.org.
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Wed Apr 28, 2010
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