Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The wizard in Oz

Enter a scruffy maestro, Nigel Kennedy himself, him wiv the bovver left boots, tassels a-dangling. He carries his violin in the left hand, the right hand making footie stadium gestures, punching the air and knuckle-greeting members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, all very with it (and slightly bogus?). He picks up a mike and does some stand-up comic, complete with some naughty Billy Connolly words. At last he relinquishes his mike for his bow and...hey presto, all is forgiven as he launches into the Prelude from Bach's E major Partita. The playing is faultless, likewise the musicianship. A Nigel Kennedy evening has begun. The date is mid-March (15th), the place is the Hamer Hall Melbourne's concert hail, seating over 2500 but with a perfect accoustic, every note clearly heard, good overall balance.
Bach over more chat leading up to Nige announcing "Mozart's Concerto in D, K.218, for violin, orchestra and harpsichord." Ello, ello, did he say harpsichord ? Well, that's not in the score, but don't let's fuss, because it can't be heard. Nige occupies quite a large space in the middle of the strings so that he can direct the concert without the use of a conductor (he doesn't think much of the breed as we have heard). The opening tutti is virile and sinewy, no 18th century lace-making. Not too tough but good style. Nige moves around, now encouraging, almost daring them to play their best and beyond. The orchestra obliges, entering into the spirit of the fifty-one year old Maestro's direction, the concert is more of a show than the usual programme. The advertised items are just the Mozart and the Beethoven, just 75 minutes music but the evening lasts very nearly 3 hours.
One unusual feature of the Mozart is that the strings play during parts of the cadenza, sustained chords over which the violin hovers, now in virtuoso style, now rhapsodizing beguilingly in almost Romany style. It was a shock that soon became a pleasure, a fine performance.
To find anything like an equal one, my memory went back a long way; to hearing Szigeti with Sir Thomas Beecham. Mozart over, Nigel chats up the leader of the orchestra, Wilma Smith and they join forces for three enchanting duets of the 44 composed by Bartok. Interval and straight into the Beethoven, fastish tempi, drum taps underplayed. The slow movement was ecstatic, a truly rapt experience - is it not Beethoven's most dreamy piece ? A dithyramb.
Much applause, the audience is enthusiastic and it seems that an encore is in the offing and when it comes it seems the most unlikely of numbers; Monti's Czardas. Stone the crows, mate!Sacrilege ? As much as on the occasion of the Concerto's premiere when between the first and second movements a double-bass did a turn with the instrument played upside down.
I went afterwards backstage and asked some of the orchestra if they enjoyed the evening, had Nige gone too far with his fooling around interludes ? No, they all said, it was great fun and they respected Kennedy because they knew that he played his instrument better than any player in the band. And they were amused when I told them that I knew Nigel before he acquired his cockney accent. Mind you, he was only three months old.
So...good on you, Nige!

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