When you go to a Nigel Kennedy concert you know you’re not going to get period Vivaldi. Piano, drum kit and microphones litter the stage as the audience waits for the rock-star violinist who is – fashionably – 20 minutes late.
The band assembles before Kennedy bounces onto the stage in a black leather jacket and lurid green sneakers, flanked by two strumming guitarists – Julian Buschberger and Mario Lattuada. The strumming becomes a jam, Kennedy stamping his feet and blowing a whistle, back to the audience, before Tomasz Kupiec’s plucked bass joins the fray and Kennedy switches to violin. The layers build and the music suddenly bursts into the first movement of Spring from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
Late or not, Kennedy performs with incredible energy. He dances around the stage, horse hair flying as he duels with the First Violin – Australian violinist and Sydney Con graduate Sonja Schebeck – and takes a pause in the birdlike figurations to grin at the audience with a wry: “tweet, tweet.” And he can certainly play: Vivaldi’s virtuosic passage-work becomes shredding solos in his hands.
Nigel Kennedy and band, photo by Anna Kucera
Kennedy’s ‘New’ Four Seasons takes Vivaldi’s concertos as a starting point for what becomes a kind of Baroque-jazz-folk-rock fusion. The violinist treats each movement like a jazz standard – and it works. The melodies and chord progressions of the Seasons are so familiar that – as with well-loved jazz chart – there’s pleasure to be had in surprising departures, novel approaches and a thrill of recognition as an unusual turn leads back to the head.
Pawel Tomaszewski’s amplified piano and Kupiec’s bass give the music night-club feel over the growl of Ezmi Pepper’s cello in Summer, while broken guitar chords fill in for harpsichord. Tribal beats underpin droning bass-lines as Kennedy winds exotic improvisations over the top. In the faster passages he practically head-bangs to Vivaldi’s surging rhythms.
Autumn opens with Kennedy strumming his violin like ukulele against a walking bass, jazz chords from the piano setting the stage for some wild blue-grass soloing, Kennedy not afraid to rough up the sound and get gritty. Kennedy playfully sprinkles his improvisations with references, dropping a fragment from Beethoven Five into the first movement and Jimi Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner into the finale, in which his cadenza is almost an electric guitar solo.
Kennedy breaks the cycle of the Seasons to squeeze in a lively tribute to Stéphane Grappelli – Grappelli’s upbeat blue-grass Swing 39 – before Dominic Kelly’s oboe solos kick off Winter, Kennedy showing he’s still got plenty of fiddle chops as he solos furiously in a series of fantasias on Vivaldi’s movements before a blistering finale. While this treatment of The Four Seasons might not be to everyone’s taste, the world will never lack for traditional servings, so it’s wonderfully refreshing to hear a fresh take on an old warhorse. And though this rendition isn’t as heavy on electronic effects as Kennedy’s 2014 album, the live energy of his performance is even more convincing.
The second half of the show also starts late – the audience spending much of the interval not at the bar but waiting patiently in their seats for the musicians to return to the stage. And if the show loses a bit of momentum in the Dedications – the tranquil, undulating Dla Jark, Fallen Forest and Melody in the Wind – the energy returns in full force with a late entry to the programme. Kennedy passionately dedicates the world premiere of his Kalinka, a vigorous Russian-flavoured dance to the Alexandrov Ensemble Choir – the ‘Red Army Choir’ – who lost 64 members when their plane went down on Christmas Day last year, the violinist and ensemble playing with fierce energy as the audience claps along.
Kennedy tops off the Dedications with Gibb It, dedicated to Mark O’Connor, tapping a beat with his bow on a music stand as Buschberger drags his pick across the guitar strings. With a suite of effects pedals at his feet, Kennedy strums his overdriven electric violin like a guitar. The volume and energy is cranked up another notch or two for the first encore – Hendrix’s Cross Town Traffic (“the reason we were late for the second half,” quips Kennedy). His violin’s jagged interjections become screaming guitar solos and Czerwinski’s kit and Kupiec’s slapping bass only add to the onslaught, the performance rewarded with a standing ovation from the crowd. The night came to an end with a tranquil note: Polish composer Krysztof Komeda’s Moja Ballada.
Kennedy – whose breakout album was released in 1989 – is still every bit the performer. His sincere enthusiasm and sense of fun is infectious, his rapport with the band entertaining – his tongue-in-cheek stage banter sparing neither McDonalds, violas or the city of Vienna – and most of all, his music is a blast whether he’s playing Vivaldi or Hendrix.
Nigel Kennedy performs Vivaldi: The New Four Seasons + Dedications at the Sydney Opera House, January 27 – 28, Hamer Hall, Melbourne January 30 – 31, Queensland Performing Arts Centre February 2, and Perth Concert Hall February 5. He will also be performing Nigel Kennedy Plays Hendrix at the Basement, Sydney on February 11 at 6:30pm and 10:00pm.