The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with Nigel Kennedy at the Royal Festival Hall
With the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra reaching its 65th year of existence, last week’s show on 12th June 2012 at the Royal Festival Hall, London, proved to be fittingly enlightening and irreverent, albeit respectful towards the picturesque surroundings.
A case in point: the Academic Festival Overture, a rousing opening number by Brahms, was the cause of some dispute back in the day when the Cambridge deans who commissioned it realised that the piece was an artful amalgamation of old student drinking songs. And thus the scene was set for a very unusual night of classical music. The relatively brief first half of the show was capped by a faithful run-through of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, with each of the composer’s affectionate odes to his nearest and dearest conducted with aplomb and impeccable acoustics.
For the second act, the Orchestra was joined by a very special guest: Nigel Kennedy, the enfant terrible of the classical world in all his punk-violin glory. Resplendent in very informal evening wear and trademark reluctant-toupée hairstyle, he launched into Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D Major with palpable verve, passion and breathtaking technique, stamping the floor at key intervals and taking to his instrument like a lumberjack with a hacksaw.
Conductor Andrew Litton did a fantastic job of maintaining the complex dynamics of the original while skilfully navigating Kennedy’s fanciful cadenzas, and the orchestra was faultless to a man as ever. The distinctive final movement had the packed house on their feet, with a standing ovation that practically demanded an encore.
Having re-emerged from backstage, Kennedy took to the composer’s pulpit (exclaiming “Oh, so that’s what it was!” upon discovering sheet music for the previous piece) and engaged in a seemingly off-the-cuff Handel duet for cello and violin – his wry admission that he had “never managed to get a grip on Handel” drew some groans from the audience. Then, in surely an unprecedented move for the Royal Philharmonic, Kennedy commandeered the entire orchestra for what can only be described as an impromptu jam, complete with knowing interpolations of classic themes and even a short vocal turn from the diminutive violinist.
Like the rest of the evening, it was by turns unexpected, virtuosic, utterly sacrilegious… and a great deal of fun. Overall it was truly a delight to see such raw, original talent embraced by a hallowed institution, especially in the service of such timeless works and composers.