A brave choice of programme this Wednesday matched the personality of the leather-clad Nigel Kennedy. This included a new self-penned composition, The Four Elements and a unique interpretation – drastically different from Kennedy’s interpretation in the late eighties – of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.

Nigel Kennedy
Nigel Kennedy

One of the most important violinists Britain has ever seen, Kennedy certainly knew how to wow the audience, commencing with a series of shouts of encouragement offstage before the orchestra came on. The first half consisted of his new pieces The Four Elements, although Kennedy did not perform one of the elements, ‘Fire’, because (as he informed the audience) ‘it’s too easy to start a fire’. Alongside him on stage was the Orchestra of Life. Formed in 2010, this hand-picked orchestra is made up of young musicians mainly from Poland and the UK. It is a multi-genre ensemble comfortable performing jazz, rock, classical repertoire and improvisation – which, as could be seen from the evening’s programme, is central to Kennedy’s desire as a composer.

The audience at the Colston Hall saw his multi-genre style in full force in The Four Elements, which was inspired by the Vivaldi work which followed. The concept of this piece is to describe the elements sonically, and it is designed to enable his Orchestra of Life to express themselves freely, while still working inside the framework of a musical programme. The highlight of the three pieces was ‘Air’, in which Kennedy played a beautiful and mesmerising solo, giving the audience a glimpse of the talents which make him one of the world’s leading violin virtuosi. ‘Earth’ and ‘Water’, though performed with heart and passion, moved away from capturing Yehudi Menuhin’s most famous protégé at his best. Undoubtedly a good pop-classical composer as well as an awe-inspiring violinist, it would have been nice to see his composition take more from his violin career and his particular unique talents. The Orchestra of Life was outstandingly responsive to Kennedy’s gestures and direction, despite him darting all over the stage, and changing between instruments. He demonstrated his performance ability on an electric violin and also on the piano, particularly in ‘Earth’.

Known as a rule-breaker, Kennedy came on stage in the second half in a ripped leather jacket and trousers, as if to say that he was about to rebel even more – and he did. He performed The Four Seasons (The Kennedy rewrite), which is a bold name for a bold attempt at changing Vivaldi for the modern ear. Around twenty years ago, it was considered that Kennedy had brought a new energy and style to the original Four Seasons, and so his aim with this tour was to present just as different an interpretation now as he had twenty years ago. It certainly was different. Vivaldi’s composition was interjected with shouts, cuckoo noises and guitar playing; it can only be described as a pop-classical rewrite for the Kennedy fan. The harpsichord continuo was performed partly on piano and partly on a Hammond organ. Kennedy feels that introducing a range of electric instruments from synthesised drums to an electronically muted trumpet will update the piece to a 2012 performance. It had a modern edge, but it is undeniable that it was the classical passages of Kennedy’s rewrite which were performed most of all as though he was really living the music – a real joy to listen to.

The concert was well received by the audience, made up half of classical repertoire followers, seeking another peek of Kennedy at his virtuosic finest, and half of loyal fans, arguably more ready to embrace his own compositions.