Nigel Kennedy & The Orchestra of Life at Barbican Hall – The Four Elements/Four Seasons Tour

The Four Elements [selections]
The Four Seasons – The Kennedy Rewrite

The Orchestra of Life
Nigel Kennedy (violin & director)

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 21 January, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Nigel KennedyFirst shock of the evening: Nigel Kennedy’s on time. The notoriously tardy violinist also keeps the swear-count down, presumably to the relief of the parents of young children in the audience, a surprisingly broad mix of people. Given the mixed atmosphere – from the polite to the boisterous – they are presumably drawn as much by Kennedy’s return to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons as by his recent attempts at jazz.

Kennedy’s stage manner is shambling, as always, and the banter a mixture of amusing and awkward. Directing The Orchestra of Life from the violin, he’s proficient and impressive, though exposed moments reveal time has robbed most of what made his playing so special three decades ago. His band, formed around a core of string players, features members of the Nigel Kennedy Quintet. They respond to his input seamlessly. This London date was their ninth in a nationwide tour of eleven consecutive nights, so there’s been time for the group to gel; yet sideways glances and giggles from his musicians suggest Kennedy takes liberties with the formula, though the ensemble remains tight throughout.

The tour promotes two albums, one new and one to be released. The reworked Four Seasons occupies the second half of the evening; a slimmed-down version of his latest, The Four Elements, the first. Kennedy gives us ‘Air’, ‘Earth’ and ‘Water’, concluding with an ‘Underture’ (as opposed to an overture), though the hour’s worth of material is as long as the album. This is Kennedy’s work, though he’s given his regular musicians the chance to contribute solos and ideas. Kennedy is at the centre of attention, but there are brilliant contributions from Doug Boyle (electric guitar), Orphy Robinson (marimba) and particularly Tomasz Nowak (trumpet). Kennedy’s composition flits across the stylistic spectrum, depicting ‘Air’ with a faux-Chinese trip into Lark Ascending territory and making an old-style R&B number of ‘Earth’ (with energetic vocals from Xantoné Black). The distinction between ‘Water’ and the finale get rather blurred, so it’s not clear what Kennedy’s extended solo on electric violin, painted in the colours of his beloved Aston Villa, represents.

Kennedy’s 1989 recording of The Four Seasons remains one of the highest-selling classical albums – he returned to Vivaldi with the Berlin Philharmonic for a 2003 album – and to many people it’s the work he’s most associated with. He’s now made his reworked version for expanded ensemble (as for Four Elements), taking a freer and improvisatory look at some of the most overplayed music, though he must be the only performer in history to slip a joke about his manhood between Seasons. Some of what he does is genuinely refreshing. Adding guitar, Hammond organ and discreet vocals around the string parts brings an extra zing to the textures; prefacing selected movements with original introductions totally removed from Vivaldi’s music is fun; but Kennedy’s use of the electric violin is a major irritation, particularly when it drowns out the rest of the musicians. It ruins ‘Summer’ and it’s a great relief when Kennedy switches back to his acoustic instrument for ‘Winter’.

Messing with Vivaldi’s music isn’t a problem – The Four Seasons can take it – but the biggest mistake is extending them quite so much. His original album was forty minutes; now Kennedy draws the movements out to well over an hour. By the end of what becomes a three-hour concert, goodwill starts to evaporate. In spite of this, Kennedy’s antics remain oddly charming. The band-members answer the audience-members’ coughs with exaggerated splutters, raising a laugh and making a point, while Kennedy’s rapport with the crowd seems more genuine than all but the most transcendental of classical performances could manage. He can keep the cock jokes though.

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