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Tower Festival 2009

Gala Opening Night Concert



Nigel Kennedy presents an evening of Bach and Ellington

Tower of London

September 10, 2009








A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


Who but ultra gifted, eccentric violinist Nigel Kennedy would have the imagination and/or musical wherewithal to offer his fans a mixed bill of J. S. Bach and Duke Ellington compositions? And who else could pull this unlikely coupling off so successfully?

Kennedy, nearly as well known for his lack of tolerance of pretention as for his violin virtuosity, exhibits an absence of traditionally classical attitude and posturing that some purists may find downright offensive, but his passionate musicianship more than makes up for any lack of the usual, genre related aesthetics. And there’s no denying that his impish, doggedly punky persona for the most part intrigues and entertains his audiences, who, on this occasion rose to their feet in a whoosh of wraps (against the chill) en masse following his riotously foot-stomping ‘something Scottish in D’ encore.

Duke Ellington (1899 – 1974), composer, musician and self styled African American Renaissance man, (long before the term African American came into existence) held an unprecedented place in the American public’s imagination as well as in the annals of music history. Composer of such seminal jazz classics as ‘Satin Doll’, ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)’, ‘Sophisticated Ladies’ and many other gems as well as his own favourite Sacred Music and countless other works incorporating Gospel, Jazz and Classical influences, replete with the murmuring undercurrent of urbanity is widely regarded as one of the pivotal composers of the 20th Century. Having had the honour of seeing a beaming, deceptively healthy ‘Sir Duke’ perform to an adoring crowd just months before what must have been a torturous demise from terminal lung cancer, I can personally testify to the power and timelessness of his music as well as the great warmth, generosity of spirit and magnetism of the man himself. Ellington’s musical legacy is of such enduring importance that in February of this year, he posthumously became the first African-American musician whose image appears on an American coin – the ‘tails’ side of the 2009 U.S. quarter.

True to his un-uniform form, virtuoso Kennedy chose to play some of the more overlooked jewels in Ellington’s sparkling crown, enhancing our appreciation of the composer further still and, intersperse these gleaming nuggets with unprecedentedly imaginative multi-layered renderings of some of the more eloquent works of Baroque master J.S. Bach.  Amusing the crowd between numbers with ‘Mockney’ bantering freely sprinkled with colourful expletives, Kennedy and his fellow musicians smoothly shifted between Ellington’s canon of the 1930’s to ‘50’s and  some of Bach’s most sublime works with an impressive professionalism and boundless passion that for this listener was unprecedented, apart from, perhaps, performances of the classical kind by late master violinist Isaac Stern, whom Kennedy cited as a major influence and I also had the privilege of seeing some years back. Stern, who seemed quite ancient to me when I heard him play in my youth, had the ability to move his listeners to tears, such was his gift of expression through the playing of his violin and, in his more mature, middle-aged state, Kennedy seems to be striving to catch up to his legendary role model in that regard.

Enraptured performances of Bach’s ‘E Major Concertos No. 1 and 2’, which opened the show  afforded intense close ups of Kennedy’s inseperable relationship with his violin via twin screens flanking the stage, thrilling the crowd into silence during their playing and setting the bar very high in anticipation of what was to come. The pieces, as interpreted by Kennedy with a healthy jot of his buoyant personality added in for good measure, assumed an air of underlying optimism that was paradoxically, passionate as well as expressively fine. The beginning of the slower, more painstaking second movement offered its own intricate surprises amid a sense of wistful longing. What could Bach have been thinking of, I wondered during this animated rendering, though I must admit that I can’t remember wondering that before when listening to oft played recordings of the piece.

As the passengers on the top section of a bus sped past the wall to our left, heads briefly turned towards the stage, Kennedy, bathed in the blue and red cloud rising from the lighting behind him launched into an under-appreciated Ellington treasure, ‘In a Jam’, with enlivening accompaniment by supreme vibraphonist, Orphee Robinson, during which the violinist seemingly transformed his alternative (he’d brought two violins) instrument into a red hot and bluesy fiddle. A somewhat cinematic rendering of ‘In a Mellow Tone’ featuring Ellington at his sophisticated but sassy best followed Kennedy’s claim that this was ‘big band s***’ that he’d put the strings into - marvellous! Digging the Ellington road he had stuck himself into, Kennedy chose to challenge his fellow musicians even further by announcing that he was ‘meant to go into Bach but was just getting into the groove...’ However, no one, including his comrades complained once they had collectively moved into the icily sparkling intro of ‘Prelude to a Kiss’ with its elusive hints of seduction, the silky movements of a lady resigned and the sounds of the city after dark when moonlight coaxes. A later version of the oft overlooked breezily fast-paced ‘Harlem Airshaft’ by Ellington was exquisitely playful and artful, with vibrant soloing and call and response accompaniment from Robinson on vibraphone.

A Bach piece referred to simply as ‘No. 8’ which Kennedy professed had been composed for harpsichord, was translated into a duet for strings taken on by him and cellist Karen Stephenson, with both  musicians entering into their playing with all the focus and gusto of true virtuosos.  The arrangement itself was a remarkable one, for although I am acquainted with the work as a harpsichord piece, purely from a listener’s perspective, this new arrangement seemed to suggest a lingering sunset at the end of a long, arduous day, while I’d never been moved to visualise much of anything before other than the dress and manner of the period it was written in.

Brighton born former protégée Kennedy, who, during the course of his already lengthily career has made recordings of the music of Jimi Hendrix and The Doors in a ‘classical’ style, appeared with The Who at the Royal Albert Hall in 2000 and along the way, vowed that ‘half of his music would be jazz’.  is often criticised for his onstage use of a Mockney accent, as opposed to the ‘Received Pronounciation’ he demonstrated as a child during an interview with the BBC. However, given his jovial stage persona and versatile and seemingly, boundless musicianship, it’s my firm belief that his deliberate reverse accent affectation is yet another way Kennedy has chosen to sidestep classical conventions and expose the hypocrisy of some of those he may view as members of the music establishment in the process.

‘Dusk’ another visually suggestive number by Ellington, opened the second half of this stimulating programme, mirroring the rhythms of the NY subway and the hoards of pedestrians thronging its sidewalks, before cruising into its title’s time of day, winding down into the slower pace of evening. All of that stimulation must have prompted thirst, for Kennedy helped himself to a plastic flute of ‘champers’ donated by one of his many well heeled fans down front and quipped that he was ‘no stranger’ to the beverage, conversely, cheerily commenting on another couple down front in a ‘sleeping bag.’

‘One of the best in the country’ oboe players, but ‘useless in the city’ according to Kennedy, Gordon Hunt, graced his fellow musicians and the audience alongside the violinist on two glorious movements from Bach’s wealth of Oboe and Violin Concertos, leaving us in complete agreement that, Hunt plays, ‘like an angel.’ And, judging by the rapturous applause which greeted the pair at the conclusion, it was also agreed that, ‘the slower movements of Bach are some of the greatest music ever written.’ During the movements the audience had also been treated to golden yellow abstracted floral patterns drifting over the walls on either side, moving across the arrow holes in the tower wall like fronds in a leafy jungle.

A jot more jazz, via the un-Ellington ‘Cottontail’ in order to demonstrate some ‘I Got Rhythm’ changes, and Cracow based Kennedy was off to the races once more, criticising his formal wear, saying, ‘I never wear this s***. I done that for you...My (Polish) boots make Doc Martens look like ballet shoes.’

Ever the innovator, Kennedy offered further imaginative stimulus via some Bach, ‘with rock bass in it,’ which he claimed was ‘a bit new, but pretty much Bach,’ going into the number with his accompanists like a group of horses, galloping along through the 18th century with nostrils flaring.

An Ellington number from ‘Black, Brown and Tan’ circa 1950, ‘first sung by Mahalia Jackson’, featured some ghostly violin from Kennedy, along with jumping vibes from Robinson and fretful guitar work from Doug Boyle, who was momentarily stumped on one occasion by Kennedy’s sudden change of direction. When Kennedy admitted that he ‘hadn’t written the chords in’ for the guitarist ahead of time, I began to wonder whether anyone had ever approached him as a potential portrayer of the challenging genius Mozart as depicted in Amadeus. However, on this, my maiden voyage onto Kennedy’s turf, I had also surmised that as a musician, he aims to retain the excitement of the moment in his performances, and enjoys the improvisational feeling in the music that often results.

Getting ‘back to the harmonic master, Bach’ only Kennedy, would dream of infusing the ‘Violin Concerto in A Minor’ with a line from ‘If I Were a Rich Man’ and actually do so in concert! As Kennedy stomped his foot on the floor with his fellow musicians animatedly performing at a galloping pace alongside of him, I found myself undecided as to whether I’d rather listen to the music of J.S. Bach or Duke Ellington, two of my favourite composers of all time. The answer is of course, both, preferably with eclectic violin virtuoso/ self professed ‘bull**** detector’ Nigel Kennedy at the helm.


This year's Tower Festival only continues through Sunday, September 20th, so book your tickets now!

The Tower of London, EC3N 4AB
10th to 20th September 2009

Tickets on sale to person callers at:
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Tower of London

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