‘It’s not an eight o’clock start, it’s seven o’clock!’ shouted one frustrated audience member in the concert hall of the Sydney Opera House; two minutes later, internationally acclaimed violinist Nigel Kennedy unapologetically took to the stage donning a silky-black jacket, baggy trousers, lime green joggers and sporting his famous punk hair-do. Kennedy is no ordinary ’classical’ musician and in spite of his musical pedigree, he seems to relish in not conforming to the expectations of classical music goers, and in doing so this renegade violinist has gathered a huge following.
Kennedy and his merry band of modern day minstrels presented a new version of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ – that ‘done-to-death’ chamber piece that has been covered in various styles including ‘rock n roll’ and ‘hip-hop’. In spite of never having actually owned a recording of the original, and never having heard it in performance in its entirety, it surprized me to realize that every movement was nevertheless instantly recognizable. A hackneyed piece some might say and high time to breathe new life into it.
The first half of the evening presents raucous and surprizing new versions of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. Two guitarists walk nonchalantly onto the stage playing their instruments and the others – already seated – slowly join in. Not recognizable at first as ‘the Four Seasons’ – the jazzy music leading into the famous tunes doesn’t quite prepare us for the incongruous arrival of some of the most instantly recognizable tunes ever written. It is all good fun in an odd kind of way.
The musicians play with amazing energy and Kennedy’s violin playing is at times the musical equivalent of burning rubber on a racetrack, at other times ethereally beautiful and pianissimo. His bow gets a good workout and the hairs start flying early on in the evening. This is quite expensive he notes, given that the hairs on his bow come from the finest horses in Siberia. In addition to being a marvellous musician, Kennedy is also quite a comic and entertains the audience with jokes and good-hearted banter. The communication between himself and his fellow players is great to see and there are numerous examples of wonderful duet, trio, quartet et al playing as the music builds and wanes. He is a sight to behold bopping around the stage stamping his left foot to keep everyone in time.
The ‘Four Seasons’ slip in plenty of musical references along the way including James Bond tunes, Beethoven’s 5th, ‘Stars and Stripes’, ‘We wish you a merry Christmas’, and a hornpipe. A cute quintet performance of Grappelli’s upbeat blue-grass ‘Swing 39’ is, in my opinion, the highlight of the evening. Picture five master musicians huddled together with a snare drum, two guitars, double bass and Kennedy on electric violin, throw in plenty of improvization and a hushed audience and the result is something unique and precious. Genius in its simplicity, I would have loved to hear more of this intimate small ensemble playing.
The second half of the evening moves away from Vivaldi to mostly contemporary music, although the band also performs a world premiere ‘Kennedy Band’ version of an old Russian song ‘Kalinka’ in honour of the ‘Red Army Choir’. The first piece is particularly interesting (composer unknown due to lack of a program) as it moves from pulsating rock rhythms to beautiful, calm melodies. Kennedy uses both electric and acoustic violins for this piece which features a wonderful violin and oboe duet and a hypnotic base line repeated over and over; it is a gift to hear such fresh and accessible contemporary music at the Opera House. He also plays a Jimi Hendrix piece that showcases his amazing versatility as a musician and his violin sounds more like an electric guitar than the darling of the symphony orchestra. Kennedy nearly lifts the roof with his joyous and instinctive playing – man and violin are one – and at the end of the concert the audience rise to their feet in appreciation.
This concert is quite a mixed bag and probably not to everyone’s taste and some might even say that reworking the ‘Four Seasons’ like this is just a gimmick used to promote concerts and sell CDs. And whilst there may be an element of truth in that, I would still rather see music and art as something organic that can be reshaped and reborn. And this is exactly what Kennedy has done with this new work, but don’t take my word for it – get along and decide for yourself.
The New Four Seasons
Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
27 & 28 January 2017
www.sydneyoperahouse.com | 02 9250 7777
Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
30 & 31 January 2017
www.artscentremelbourne.com.au | 1300 182 183
Concert Hall, QPAC
2 February 2017
www.qpac.com.au | 136 246
Perth Concert Hall
5 February 2017
www.perthconcerthall.com.au | 08 9231 9999