Proms Diary: Nigel Kennedy and the Orchestra of Life

Anger and passion fuelled a rich reimagining of Vivaldi's Four Seasons

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If you’d told me in 1989, when Nigel Kennedy released his first recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, that he’d still be packing out the Royal Albert Hall 24 years later with the same programme I wouldn’t have believed it. Surely our Nigel couldn’t, like Morrissey or Mick Jagger, become a perpetual rebel, adopted by successive generations? This young audience proved me wrong. The supply of talented violinists hasn’t exactly dried up, many of whom have thrown away the rule book in more innovative ways. So what’s his secret?

Alongside a distinctive musical voice, it must be his anger. Anger fuels his performances. You can feel it in his dynamism, hear it in his stamping foot, read it in the garbled but furiously defensive preface he provided in the programme, peppered with ‘Don’t be silly’, ‘Let’s forget it’ and a rejection of the ‘completely useless aping of archaic performance practices’. It’s that provocative, adolescent wilfulness, his refusal to be controlled, combined with his brand of fiery musicality, that still appeals. Other super talents are so reasonable, so polished, so laid-back. Here, he’ll always be a prodigal son.

Years ago he found his true musical home in Poland, where his Orchestra of Life is based. The Poles clearly recognise and admire a fighting spirit, warming to his passion while we Brits grumble over his annoying mannerisms, unreliability, rehearsal demands, jazzy back-sliding. So, too, do the young Palestinian Strings, who joined the Orchestra of Life, an ensemble of students as young as 12 from the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music. This proved a brave and illuminating idea, and lent an unusually rich colour to Vivaldi’s concertos.

Into a basic rhythm section set-up – the irresistible bassist Yaron Stavi with Krzysztof Dziedzic on subtle percussion without drum kit, and the gently agile pianist Gwilym Simcock providing a perfect continuo foil to Kennedy’s manic sawing – he wove spaces into which the young Palestinian soloists could stand and improvise in mesmerising Arabic style. These were especially successful in the apprehensive slow movement of Summer, where the shepherd boy fears the imminent storm: sinuous, silky-toned melismas from violin, viola and voice rang out, projecting like melancholy muezzin calls into the hall, and suiting perfectly Vivaldi’s open structure.

It wasn’t all good: ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing’ cropped up in Summer apropos of nothing, while Spring opened with infuriating, Shirley Bassey-style crescendos on the final notes of every phrase. Kennedy’s own solos were pretty rough at times. At one point in Autumn he lost the thread completely and had to stop and ask the leader where they were. But he led the concertante episodes with such charm and wit, adding in birds at spring time, and delivering Winter’s aria like the purest folk air, you had to forgive the excesses.

Palestinian flags were waving in the audience as he turned to speak of the need to end apartheid. A petulant voice behind me asked, ‘Why do we have to bring politics into this?’, another barked ‘Right, let’s leave now’. I’m glad its owner was persuaded by his children to stay because I cannot imagine he could have remained untouched by the encore, a performance of the slow movement of Vivaldi’s A minor Double Concerto by Kennedy and 15-year-old Palestinian violinist Mostafa Saad, whose eloquence cast a spell on the hall. Roll on the album…

This Prom will be broadcast on BBC Four on 23 August 2013, and the radio broadcast can be heard again on the iPlayer website here.