In accordance with clichés about prima donnas, Nigel Kennedy’s concert at the Musiikkitalo in Helsinki starts 15 minutes after the lights have faded away in the hall. The Nigel Kennedy Quintet enters and its leader makes a couple of jokes to break the ice. He slowly introduces the musicians – Piotr Wyleżoł, keyboards; Adam Kowalewski, bass guitars; Tomasz Grzegorski, horns; and Krzysztof Dziedzic, drums – describing them like characters from a comedy show.

Nigel Kennedy
Nigel Kennedy

Today’s program is titled “The Violin – past and future”, and Kennedy announces that it has never been presented to any audience before. The idea at its core is to alternate pieces from the past – movements from Bach solo violin works – with ones “from the future” (in Kennedy’s words). The pieces from the future are improvisations and Kennedy’s own compositions.

Everything starts with a Bach E minor Preludium for solo violin. In this beginning, Kennedy takes up such a high speed that the musical value of Bach’s polyphony for solo instrument isn’t really given the time to emerge. His movements on stage resembles those of a rock star. Too bad that rock stars’ instruments are amplified, while the pure sound of a violin is disrupted by the banging of feet on the floor stage.

The Preludium slides into the succeeding improvisation with no break, as if the latter were its natural continuation. This pattern was adopted for the entire set. The improv starts with a calm, pianissimo melody on the violin. Some fragmented interjections are soon joined by the piano, then by drums and double bass, and eventually by the saxophone. Just like the Preludium, this improvisation resembles a warm-up situation, with no defined structure and no clear protagonist.

Kennedy then takes the stage for a Bach Fugue. He plays it aggressively, his bow pressing on the strings so much that the sound is mostly suffocated and many notes hiss instead of resounding. The intonation is imprecise and the phrasing often functional to technical requirements, instead of the other way around.

Another improvisation follows, with calm and open harmonies periodically interspersed with dissonance. The instruments enter in the same order as previously, this time leaving room for a double bass solo from Kowalewski. Kennedy suddenly moves to an Irish style, with the beginning of a dance-like folk theme. The melody is constantly accompanied by the band and each of its sections is repeated twice.

A Bach Andante follows, and finally a couple of touching moments are reached. Kennedy’s intonation is generally better, and his dynamics more varied than earlier. His bow carves pianos and pianissimos that are clearly audible despite the size of the hall, even though they lack evenness. The pulse is regular and Kennedy seems for the first time truly engaged in the music.

Fallen Forest, composed by Kennedy himself, is the next piece in line. It has open harmonies and relaxed melodies, and it recalls open seas or fields, rather like a movie soundtrack. The piece includes an improvised saxophone solo. Kennedy responds to it with his violin, claiming more attention than usual for an accompanying instrument.

The first part of the concert ends with a Bach Allegro in A minor, in which the solo violin is sustained by double bass and drums. In this modernized frame, typical of Kennedy’s history and suiting his skills and style much more than classical music, dynamics and musical ideas are quite simplified.

I cannot avoid noticing that his looks are at odds with the rock character that he tries to represent. He is wearing old tennis shoes, one blue sock and one red, and clamdiggers. On top of this there is a white T-shirt crowned by yellow sagging scarf-like cloth, hidden under a long and baggy dark shirt. I would like to know what this fisherman look has to do with the character that his marketing depicts.

After the intermission the show gets more interesting. Kennedy plays modern pieces, mainly composed by himself, and makes use of the electric violin. Along with the actual violin, he shows skills in using different pedals, thus adding various effects to the sounds he is producing. Some effects imply lowering the notes by an octave, thus getting into cello registers; some achieve wah-wah sounds, and other ones make the violin sound like an electric guitar.

Kowalewski also at times switches to the electric bass, and Wyleżoł alternates between the piano and the organ. Different rhythms are taken up, including swing, samba, rock and folk-like Irish dances. The ensemble turns out to be composed of very skilled members, who didn’t emerge that much in the previous part of the concert. The pieces by Kennedy include Where All Paths Meet, 4th Glass, Transfiguration, and Hills of Saturn. A Taste of Honey by Herb Alpert is also included, as well as Csárdás by Monti.

“Past and Future” is an interesting concept, and it bears the potential to delivering a powerful message to its spectators. It is, at any rate, interesting to see how, in this world in which specialization intensifies progressively and becomes more and more important every day, sticking to what you do best may lead to better outcomes than pursuing an interesting concept with only mediocre skills to perform at least part of it.