Tag Archives: Vivaldi

Nigel Kennedy meets Bach and Gershwin in Athens

From child prodigy to -super- stardom

Born in 1956 into a family of distinguished musicians, Nigel Kennedy started out his remarkable career in music as a boy prodigy (he became a pupil at the Yehudi Menuhin School of Music at the age of 7), and soon developed a highly individual style along with an unconventional approach that made him one of the truly unique -and controversial- violinists of his generation.

Yehudi Menuhin teaching young Nigel Kennedy

While still 16 years old, Kennedy was invited by legendary jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli to play with him at Carnegie Hall in New York (which he did, successfully, against the advice of his classical teachers). His debut record featured Elgar’s Violin Concerto, while his 1989 recording of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with the English Chamber Orchestra became one of the best-selling classical recordings in history, with total sales of over three million units.

Fusing classical, jazz and rock

Over the last decades, Kennedy has made a name as one of classical music’s most (in)famous mavericks, regularly crossing over different music genres while developing his signature, unorthodox performing style and idiosyncratic playing. His tastes and influences vary from baroque and classical to jazz and rock (he has recorded an album with improvisational covers of Jimi Hendrix), and next to many of the world’s leading orchestras he has also collaborated with musicians such as Paul McCartney, Kate Bush, Robert Plant and The Who.

Regarding his departure from classical “orthodoxy” and standard practices,  Kennedy’s response has been revealing: ‘I suppose I took a bit of flak for taking the jazz attitude into the classical world. But so many people from the classical establishment are stuck in closets on top of their ivory towers.’

It was Kennedy’s acquaintance and apprenticeship with Grappelli that led him to a deeper appreciation and understanding of Gershwin’s music, which features in his latest album Kennedy Meets Gershwin.

A Greek premiere

Kennedy’s first live appearance in Greece took place earlier this week at the ancient Odeon of Herodes Atticus stone theater in Athens. Together with his ensemble (Peter Adams – cello, Yaron Stavi – double bass, Rolf Bussalb – electric guitar, Howard Alden – guitar), the English violinist performed a varied program in front of a warm and enthusiastic crowd.

After opening the concert with an original and absolutely breathtaking interpretation of Bach’s fugue from the first violin sonata in G minor, the highly energetic Kennedy carried on with some recent works by “one of his favorite composers” (i.e. himself), before moving on to a selection from his new album featuring his refreshing and lively arrangements of Gershwin’s classics Rhapsody in Blue and Porgy & Bess.

Nigel Kennedy performing at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus theater in Athens

Kennedy’s seemingly inexhaustible energy and high spirits led to a prolonged (nearly 3-hour-long) concert full of pleasant musical surprises, including Kennedy’s piano playing and an absolutely thrilling performance of the popular Csárdás, showcasing his astonishing virtuosity, improvisational skills, and… sense of humor (there were several moments when his comments caused loud laughter across the theater).

Kennedy’s sensational performance closed with an electrifying rendition of Minor Swing by Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli – indeed, a perfect ending to the evening and a testament to the musician’s ability to roam seamlessly through baroque, classical, gypsy, klezmer, and jazz music.

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The seasons they are a changin’

Earlier this month I visited the beautiful Palau de la Música Catalana for a performance of Vivaldi’s Le Quattro Stagioni (“The Four Seasons”) by German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and her ensemble. It was an excellent concert and soon after the last notes of Vivaldi’s “Winter” were heard, the audience burst into a grand, extended applause anticipating Mutter’s return to the stage.

Sure enough, the famous virtuoso and her select group of skilled instrumentalists were soon back for a bis – a treatment of the thunderous Presto from Vivaldi’s “Summer” concerto. Although this could well have been sufficient, the crowd’s enthusiastic response and continuous cheering resulted in yet another encore. This was when things started to get slightly, ehmm, metamodern.

As soon as Mutter and her ensemble started playing (the piece was an arrangement of Bach’s famous Air from his Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major), I found myself surrounded by people reaching out to their mobile phones, cameras and tablets, struggling to capture as best they could every single second of that final performance. And there I was, hopeless and helpless, utterly incapable of enjoying the beauty of such sublime music and the unique setting.

I know what you are thinking: “This is happening in nearly every concert nowadays, so what’s the big deal?” And yes, I (as I am sure you too, dear reader) have also indulged in similar practices on one occasion or another. But here’s the thing: It’s quite different taking a photo (or video) during a rock gig or a large pop concert than doing the same during an intimate performance where music (classical or otherwise) is played on acoustic instruments and all its color, subtleties, and nuances are of the essence.

As Bach’s Air was about to end, I couldn’t help but think that the uplifting qualities of such magnificent music had somehow been suspended, the atmosphere irreversibly ruined; in short, the magic had been lost.

photo

Thinking back on the incident, an excerpt from Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise came to mind, where the author relates a visit to a tourist attraction known as “the most photographed barn in America”:

People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced at once by others.

“We’re not here to capture an image. We’re here to maintain one. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”

There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.

“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”

Another silence ensued.

“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.

Although sightseeing is not identical to a concert hall visit, there are certainly some eerie resemblances on how more and more people are experiencing the two. I would like to believe that taking pictures, making selfies or videos, buying postcards and seeing “only what the others see” have not yet displaced the essence of attending a music performance, i.e. nurturing one’s mind and soul with sounds that please, excite and stimulate.

The seasons are changing, and mobile devices have invariably made their way into the concert hall. Still, as much as it is about entertainment, a gig (regardless of music genre) can also be an opportunity for contemplation or the cause of life-changing insights. It can be indeed a religious experience, where one willingly becomes part of a collective perception, to use DeLillo’s words. My hope is that it doesn’t degenerate into “spiritual surrender” or any short of mindless “tourism.”

Vivaldi, jazz and the Greek summer

It is common to associate certain songs, albums or artists with the occasion and the place where we first listened to them. This is especially true when the first hearing is linked to a place of exceptional beauty, which stays forever intertwined with the tune/artist in question.

I have such a memory from some distant summer holidays in the small island of Elafonisos, just off the Southern coast of Peloponnese in Greece. Known for its sandy beaches and blue-green waters, Elafonisos is an ideal place to wind down and tune in your body and soul with the beautiful, serene scenery.

Elafonisos, Greece

Every day we would walk up to a small beach bar for a snack, casual talk and enjoy the splendid surroundings. To top it all off, there was almost always some intriguing music coming from the bar’s speakers that seemed to blend perfectly with the surrounding space.

One time, while I was enjoying the most delicious karydópita (pecan pie) with fresh vanilla ice cream I have ever tasted, I decided to walk up and ask the bartender/cook/DJ what was the tune we were listening to.

I could tell it was some sort of jazz adaptation of Vivaldi, but I had never heard something like it before. He wrote down the name of the artist on a piece of paper and handed over to me (back then there was no mobile phones, let alone Wi-Fi). The note read Jacques Loussier”.

That’s how I was introduced to the wonderful world of the Jacques Loussier Trio and their magnificent renditions of classical music (from Bach and Vivaldi to Chopin and Debussy).

To this day, when I listen to Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ played by Loussier’s jazzy piano trio, my mind flies instantly toward the Greek summer – the most beautiful season of all.

Max Richter and Daniel Hope in concert (Paradiso, Amsterdam)

From baroque to the present

It is always refreshing to hear a piece of classic stature in a way you would have never imagined possible. Such is the case with Vivaldi Recomposed: The Four Seasons, Max Richter’s fascinating reworking of Vivaldi’s timeless masterpiece (which has been through several creative transformations through the years).

Richter’s imaginative and highly idiosyncratic re-composition of The Four Seasons is indeed a unique achievement. Having infused Vivaldi’s work with postmodern and minimalist elements, Richter has at the same time managed to remain faithful to the music’s innermost essence producing a result of the highest standards, both aesthetically and technically.

Four Seasons in Paradise

On September 10, I was one of the fortunate Amsterdamers who had the opportunity to experience a live performance of the recomposed Four Seasons (for the first time in The Netherlands) by Max Richter, British violinist Daniel Hope and L’arte del mondo orchestra at Paradiso’s magnificent Grote Zaal.

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Given Paradiso’s tradition in bringing together the old the new, one could hardly think of a better venue for the occasion. Following an impressive opening by the vigorous Francesco Tristano and Alice Sara Ott piano duo, Richter and Hope gave a truly exhilarating performance which produced a highly enthusiastic response from the audience.

And rightly so: it is not every day that one gets to enjoy live the combined magic of Vivaldi’s captivating music and Richter’s innovative vision coming to life under the imposing windows of Amsterdam’s most celebrated music venue.

Changing of the seasons

Antonio Vivaldi composed The Four Seasons (‘Le quattro stagioni’) in 1723. A work of unmatched artistry and elegance, it would become one of the most popular pieces of baroque music, if not classical music in general. It is also an early example of program music, with the four concertos named after the different seasons and following closely a set of corresponding sonnets.

The Four Seasons is an integral part of the violin repertoire, a work literally hardwired in the brain of every violinist. As might be expected, there is an abundance of recordings: approximately 1,000(!) different recorded versions of The Four Seasons have made their appearance since 1939 by various soloists and orchestras.

My personal favorites include the recording by Yehudi Menuhin and Camerata Lysy Gstaad from 1981, as well as Nigel Kennedy’s popular 1989 recording with the English Chamber Orchestra. Kennedy had studied with Menuhin as a child, and his recording of the The Four Seasons would become one of the best-selling classical works of all time. An eccentric figure, Kennedy has never hesitated to introduce improvisatory elements in his playing, which often makes his live performances electrifying.

Inevitably, some approaches to Vivaldi’s great composition have proved to be more daring and stylistically innovative than others. This is the case with French pianist and composer Jacques Loussier (b. 1934), whose main claim to fame have been his magnificent jazz adaptations of J.S. Bach. Apart from its sheer musicality, the fact that Loussier’s rendition manages to capture the essence of the original work by means of a piano trio alone is impressive.

More recently, British composer Max Richter (b. 1966) offered us a truly astonishing re-composition of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (its premiere was on 31 October 2012). In describing the 1st movement of his Summer, Richter talks about “relentless pulsed music”, adding that perhaps he “was also thinking about John Bonham’s drumming.” He has also referred to the connection between the harpsichord’s sound in the 2nd movement of his Autumn and the style of various pop recordings, including Abbey Road and several albums by the Beach Boys.

The metamorphoses of The Four Seasons throughout the ages show how a baroque masterpiece can survive in modern times through assuming different forms and incorporating elements from such diverse genres as jazz, pop, hard rock and minimalism. Seasons may keep changing, yet Vivaldi’s music remains.