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Nigel Kennedy

Trevor Gager

HAMER HALL: Nigel Kennedy’s radically unorthodox approach to performing classical music didn’t so much break the rules in its day but re-wrote the entire book.
Nigel Kennedy
It’s impossible to write a review when you are left completely speechless at the end of a concert. I will try my best to bundle together a bunch of adjectives and superfluous thoughts whilst trying to relay how I feel, however ultimately whatever I write will still leave the facts short changed. Last night I was privileged to witness one of the world’s greatest violin virtuosos - Nigel Kennedy, as he opened the first leg of his Australian tour at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall, complete with his very own hand picked chamber orchestra and a group of rather talented musicians collectively known to us all as The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO). I, like most of the world am well aware of Kennedy’s prodigious and unique talent; however, I don’t think I was really prepared for what would eventually unfold during the course of the evening. The word ‘versatile’ gets too often thrown around when describing artists. With Nigel Kennedy however, I don’t feel it goes far enough in describing just what this amazing performer is actually capable of. Kennedy’s radically unorthodox approach to performing classical music didn’t so much break the rules in its day but re-wrote the entire book, and with it came not just universal critical acclaim, but also a new and previously untapped audience who would ultimately end up buying his recordings by the millions, making him one of the most relevant musicians of our time. A child protégé to the late great Yehudi Menuhin (who, it was reported after his death financed the young Kennedy whilst studying at his School), he was to find media attention at a very young age. Being raised in the UK, I can so clearly remember Nigel Kennedy’s meteoric rise to stardom; I suppose with The Three Tenors breaking down operatic barriers, it was inevitable that a classical musician would also follow. And so it was that in 1985 with the release of his first recording; Elgar’s Violin Concerto, Nigel Kennedy would announce himself as the rightful owner to that title. It would however be his seminal 1989 recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons that most people will always remember him by. This became a phenomenon, earning a place in music history as the world’s best selling classical album of all time and staying at the top of the UK classical charts for well over a year. Since that time Nigel Kennedy has performed and released a plethora of material in every imaginable genre including his critically acclaimed 2006 release Blue Note Sessions - a jazz record released on the legendry Blue Note label, and his soon to be released original composition titled SHHH. This first part of his Australian tour titled, Nigel Kennedy Presents Bach and Ellington brings together two of his great musical influences and acts as a wonderful showcase to demonstrate just how accomplished and nonconformist a musician he is. Incidentally on March 7th at QPAC, he will also be playing homage to another hero with a show titled Nigel plays Jimi Hendrix. Right from the onset it was obvious that this was going to be a pretty extraordinary evening. Kennedy’s personality is in many ways as unique as his talent. His genuine and highly likeable larrikin persona all ads up to the perfect juxtaposition to the violin playing genius that he is; and brings with it a wonderful sense of uncertainty and rebellion that I personally found compelling. Due to the torrential rain encountered in Melbourne last Thursday, the start time was delayed by some twenty minutes. Where as most Musicians would be constantly clock watching whilst cutting out unnecessary banter from the proceedings, Kennedy seemed to revel in this fact; taking a good 15 minutes after stepping onstage to even pick up his violin. His humble and generous nature also became immediately apparent as he constantly acknowledged every musician around him. I can only hope that other performers might take note. Musically the evening was about as perfect as one could ever wish to hope for. Kennedy’s newly formed Chamber Orchestra is an absolute tour de force; all highly astute & capable musicians and all of them easily able to adlib and adapt to everything thrown at them during the two and a half hour set. It should go without saying that the MSO were also sensational, and once again proved why they are considered both locally and internationally as one of the world’s truly great orchestra’s. I should also give mention to Violinist and Concertmaster Wilma Smith, whose camaraderie and by play with Kennedy was simply a joy to behold. Bach selections including, Violin Concerto in A minor, Violin Concerto in E, and the spellbindingly beautiful; Concerto for Violin and Oboe in D Minor - which I have to say left me utterly overwhelmed and unashamedly moved to tears. Some may argue that the balance between Bach and Duke Ellington may have leaned slightly too much towards that of Ellington, and certainly if you were expecting to see an evening of classical music with a sprinkling of Jazz mixed in, you may have left a touch disappointed. However I am certain that no audience member felt this way, for such is Nigel Kennedy’s obvious passion for jazz music and his incomparable skills at improvisation, there was never going to be any dull moments on the night. By the time he decided (as if off the cuff) to throw in the instantly recognisable first few bars of Caravan, he had - I’m certain everyone witnessing this spectacle - eating out of his hand, it was simply magical. So I had what I can only describe as a truly blessed evening - and then just when I thought things could not get better, I hear a whisper that Nigel Kennedy would be performing in a free ‘Semi Secret Super-Jam’ at The Abbotsford Convent on the Friday evening, straight after his second Hamer Hall performance. Now such rumours are normally just rumours and rarely come to fruition, however not in this case. And so true to his word at about 12:45am, Nigel Kennedy once again appeared on stage before me, this time however the stage was tiny, the equipment basic, and the crowd less than 200 people. It was then it hit me that he is without doubt the most extraordinary musician I have ever experienced. Joined by his long time friend Allan Zavod (he of Frank Zappa’s 1984 lineup), drummer Danny Ferugia, bassist Jeremy Alsop and saxophonist Julien Wilson, for the second time in two days I witnessed Nigel Kennedy blow the roof off a venue. As he pointed out (in his own slightly less than subtle way!), it should have and would have gone on all night had licensing laws not have dictated otherwise. I was just happy that it had gone on in the first place - it was a truly spectacular night that I will never forget. Nigel Kennedy presents a unique evening of Bach and Ellington 11 Feb Hamer Hall - The Arts Centre VIC 12 Feb Hamer Hall - The Arts Centre VIC 13 Feb Hamer Hall - The Arts Centre VIC 25 Feb Sydney Opera House - Concert Hall NSW 26 Feb Sydney Opera House - Concert Hall NSW 27 Feb Sydney Opera House - Concert Hall NSW 1 Mar Sydney Opera House - Concert Hall NSW 4 Mar Royal Theatre ACT 6 Mar Queensland Performing Arts Centre - Concert Hall QLD
What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Trevor Gager is Company Memberships Manager for ArtsHub.
When he’s not in the office you will find him listening to Bowie, Classical Music, and breaking up fights between his two Cats (Pablo & Andy).

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