“Superlative musicianship … beautiful music from about two inches of steel E string “
“Have you got anything by Nigel Kennedy?” the enthusiastic lady said to the bemused shop assistant in the HMV Record Store, Oxford Street, some thirty years ago. Mostly people asked for music by title or by composer, and when by artist only those of a more traditional, established genre. Here was a new phenomenon: the classical musician as rockstar. Since then, more have come. But Kennedy was the trailblazer.
It has been greatly to Kennedy’s credit that his unconventional dress sense and stage demeanour (fist bumps, shouts, foot stamping et al) has not got in the way of his superlative musicianship. Yes, he has succeeded in making classical music more attainable, but not by getting into crossover or dumbing down. Notwithstanding the informal approach, he has always taken his music intensely seriously. Comparisons may be odious, but Joshua Bell played the Usher Hall a couple of weeks ago. Both players are at the top of their game. But I know who nailed it.
Wednesday’s programme was a music critic’s nightmare. None of the works (apart from the original ‘Four Seasons’) is in the public domain (for once, Grove failed to come to the rescue) and the programme notes contained nothing about the music, just biographies of the band, a largely Polish contingent of exceptional ability. I was on my own.
Never fear, Nigel introduced the pieces and in every one you could see where he was coming from. First off was an Amuse bouche of a Bach partita that threw the theme back and forth between violin and cello, exquisitely played with a real bond between the star and talented acolyte Peter Adams.
There then followed four of Kennedy’s own compositions. Dia Jarka, dedicated to contemporary guitarist/composer Jarek Smetana – and as far as we can tell, no relation to Bedrich – had the guitars and double bass laying down a raga style line, with nuances of the Beatles’ Maharishi phase. Stephane Grappelli was a folk/jazz fusion as one might expect, but not in the “swing” Grappelli style; more intense. Kennedy’s relationship with Grappelli, was, of course, similarly deep, from when he first disobeyed the orders of his over strict teachers at the Juilliard to go on stage to play jazz with the old man at Carnegie Hall, with brandy having been taken to steady the nerves as he risked expulsion. One is reminded of Nureyev in his early days rebelling against the Kirov. Different political system; similar didactic musical approach.
For Isaac Stern came next with a beautiful interpolation of violin and viola, followed by a tribute to American bluegrass composer/violinist Mark O’Connor with the unusual but effective combination of violin, bowed double bass and guitar.
After some playful fooling around deceiving the audience they were going to hear more, Kennedy made the audience friendly announcement “Ladies and gentleman it is my sad duty to stop playing and let you go to the bar”. So we did.
The second half was Kennedy’s signature piece, The Four Seasons, but in his own arrangement for strings, two guitars and piano. It worked. Antonio Vivaldi would not be so much as turning in his grave as wanting to get out of it so that he could join the party. There followed some forty five minutes of “extras” – one would hardly call them encores because they were generously offered without the audience asking, and a near three hour set was concluded with a sublime rendition of the Londonderry Air, taking it right up into the highest register (could it have been eleventh position?) and Kennedy still getting beautiful music from about two inches of steel E string. I was reminded, perhaps not too strangely, how the Rolling Stones played way over time at Wembley in 1990 having had to finish early the previous evening. Oh, Danny Boy, we were sorry to see him go, but, boy, had we had our money’s worth!
Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 27 January)
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