Nigel Kennedy – Bach, Kennedy, Gershwin

Nigel Kennedy - Bach, Kennedy, GershwinIt was a hot night, both weather-wise and musically, and from the moment the audience entered Llewellyn Hall it was clear that this was not going to be your ordinary concert. Besides the grand piano and five chairs, there were two yellow lounges – not, it transpired, for the musicians to sit in, but in which to rest their instruments. Vertical sound bars were scattered around the stage, with a sound technician tucked in a far corner of the stage, behind a huge piece of sound equipment.

The band took the stage wearing maroon football guernseys, with their names embroidered across their backs. Flaunting his trademark spiky punk-rock hairdo, Kennedy made his entrance wearing similar, but covered his with a loose jacket set off with grey tracky-dacks and bright yellow runners. His clothes were the only casual thing about him however, as he immediately plunged into a mesmerizing rendition of Bach’s Sonata for Solo violin No. 1 in G-Minor, BWV 1001.

Kennedy nominates Bach as his favourite composer, and claims he uses the Bach solo sonatas as a form of meditational warm-up. This performance, which he dedicated to Yehudi Menuhin, certainly focused and transfixed his audience, fascinating them with his complete absorption in, and mastery of, the intricacies of Bach’s compositional brilliance.

Should he ever become bored with the violin though – as inconceivable as that might be – Kennedy could forge a second career in stand-up comedy. His jocular mood, relaxed manner and ever-ready quips, quickly engaged his audience, as he spoke of his pleasure in performing in Llewellyn Hall, confiding that both his parents had toured in a trio with Ernest Llewellyn after whom the hall is named.

He then surprised by sitting at the grand piano and launching into an unprogrammed, gently swinging arrangement of Arrivedeci Roma – which he used as a kind of introduction to his accompanying musicians, guitarists Howard Alden and Rolf Bussalb, Cellist Peter Adams and double bassist, Piotr Kulakowski, each a virtuoso in their own right.

Kennedy’s obvious respect for these musicians became a highlight of the performance, as he reveled in challenging them to match his brilliant improvisations especially with the jazz-inspired Gershwin arrangements which made up the second part of the program.

But before the Gershwin, Kennedy turned to his “second favourite composer” for his own composition, The Magician of Lublin inspired by Isaac B. Singer’s book on life in the Shtetls of old Poland. He commenced this composition using an electronic stringed instrument to conjure up a strange looping introduction suggesting Klezmer music, before taking to the piano, where his musicians joined him, to create a series of often dazzling evocations of characters and events from the book.

Following the sustained applause which greeted this composition, Kennedy again surprised by previewing the remaining half of the program with a heavily romantic reading of Gershwin’s How Long Has This been Going On.

Kennedy claims to have always hated Gershwin. He credits Stephane Grappelli to opening his eyes to the pathos, charm, flavor and craft of Gershwin’s compositions. His virtuosic jazz arrangements of the other five Gershwin compositions which formed the rest of the concert were real eye-openers for those in the audience who considered they knew Gershwin.

A cheeky They Can’t Take That Away from Me, sprinkled mischievously with hints of Strangers In The Night and The Harry Lime Theme, drew smiles from his colleagues as they responded to his impish challenges, ending with the longest exit of crashing final chords ever, reducing the audience to hysterics.

An intriguing combination of I Loves You Porgy and Bess You is My Woman Now from Porgy and Bess charmed with its lush rippling exit. Kennedy changed violins for The Man I Love featuring ever more complex improvisations, then a hectic Oh, Lady Be Good which featured dueling guitars as, egged on by Kennedy, Alden and Bussalb challenged each other with ever more complex improvisations, eliciting cheers from the excited audience.

Of course, there were encores. Kennedy was generous, offering a rollicking Irish medley combining a jaunty jig with a heartfelt Londonderry Air, then topped if off with a dazzling version of The Rhapsody in Blue entitled Rhapsody in Claret and Blue which climaxed with a well-earned standing ovation in recognition of a memorably joyous evening of superb music making.

Nigel Kennedy – Bach, Kennedy, Gershwin
Llewellyn Hall, William Herbert Place, Canberra
Performance: Friday 25 January 2019

Nigel Kennedy – Bach, Kennedy, Gershwin will also be presented at the Adelaide Festival Centre (29 January) and the Perth Concert Hall (1 February).

Image: Nigel Kennedy (supplied)

Review: Bill Stephens OAM