Classical music in Nashville is displaying rare colors this autumn. Along with a lot of comfortably familiar music, we’ve heard an uncommon lot of seldom-performed contemporary masterworksby Joan Tower, Gunther Schuller, and Elliott Carter, among others. One lucent jewel was the Blair String Quartet’s recent performance of Alban Berg’s miraculous Lyric Suite for String Quartet, which is almost never offered live. Another was the Nashville Children’s Chorus singing two compositions by John Rutter, directed by the composer himself, in a Rutter Music Festival at Belmont. The children, handsome, disciplined, focused, and confident, sang some very sophisticated stuff precisely and quite musically.
Two more offerings arrive this week, one outrageous, one quite polite. Kennedy (the British violinist formerly known as Nigel Kennedy) appears at Langford Auditorium on Thursday evening. And on the following two evenings, the rising young American pianist Adam Neiman appears with the Nashville Symphony at TPAC.
Neiman, the polite one, 21 years younger than Kennedy, is rising in the classical firmament like John Glenn the second time around. Winner in 1996 of the Young Concert Artist Competition at the age of 17, he played his debut recital that same year at the 92nd Street YMCA in New York. This year, he performed at Washington’s Kennedy Center and has played a number of music festivals as wellRavinia, for instance, and Seattle. He is booked to make his New York City concerto debut next April, when he will play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in Alice Tully Hall.
What’s more, he is playing a wide range of music, demanding a versatile technical rangebesides Beethoven, he plays Bartok, Brahms, Chopin, Mozart, Prokofiev, Scarlatti, and Schumann, among others. Audiences love him. He even looks a little like the young Mozart. And critics are likewise impressed. One has predicted that, early in the next century, Adam Neiman’s name will “top the list of the world’s great virtuoso pianists.”
The program this weekend will test his virtuosityNeiman takes on Sergei Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Rachmaninov (d. 1943) was the last of the great Russian late-Romantic composers, and his Rhapsody is quintessential stuffyearning melodies, sumptuous harmonies, and super-quick Fingerfertigkeit. The music, a set of variations, will be familiar to those beyond mid-lifeat least two luscious movie themes were quarried from the score. The germinal motive comes from the 24th Caprice of demonic fiddler NicolÒ Paganini (d. 1840), Franz Liszt’s role model for charismatic virtuoso prowess. Rachmaninov learned the lesson toolisteners have been panting to this music for more than 60 years. Odds are, Adam Neiman will make them do it again.
Kennedy, the outrageous one, is himself making listeners do it again after a five-year recess that was originally announced as a permanent quietus. (He changed his mind.) Known as the punk virtuoso, Kennedy is a tangle of paradoxes. It’s impossible to know what about him is authentic and what is put-on. But as a musician, Kennedy has been from the outset a vanquisher of audiencesand of critics.
His prodigious talent enabled his parents to send him to the renowned Sir Yehudi Menuhin School of Music when he was only 7on a “scholarship” that Sir Yehudi paid out of his own pocket. While Kennedy’s musicianship carried him on to Juilliard, and thence to a recording career that made him a young millionaire, his personal life was a simmering cauldronpartly, he says, because his parents dumped him with Menuhin instead of nurturing him at home.
He cultivates the look of a “scruffy hooligan” and affects a cockney accentsort of like Jay Leno trying to pass as Jeff Foxworthy. Moreover, Kennedy has felt obliged (though he says he no longer does) to stretch his parameters via sundry chemicals, and to play Milt Jackson and Jimi Hendrix as well as Vivaldi, Bach, Beethoven, and Bartok. After a recent performance with the San Francisco Symphony, Kennedy stashed his priceless 1735 Guarneri violin, took up a $2,000 German fiddle, and repaired to a club called Pearl’s to jam with some jazz cats, playing Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. Afterward, trumpeter Al Molina deadpanned, “He’s got a future.”
Kennedy says about himself: “People can say I’m a classical violinist if they want to, but I’ve always viewed myself as a musician who plays music and not just a certain part of it.” The program announced for this weekend upholds this claim.
It’s basically the one he toured with in the U.K. last summer and played a couple weeks ago at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City. Unless he changes his mindwhich is entirely possiblehe’ll play Bartok’s Sonata for Solo Violin and two movements from Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in C Major. He will also play his own Concerto in Suite Form, based on some Jimi Hendrix songs“In 1983 a Merman I Would Be,” “Third Stone From the Sun,” “Little Wing,” “Drifting,” “Fire,” “Hey Joe,” and “Purple Haze.”
He will be abetted by the Kennedy CollectiveJohn Etheridge (guitar), Douglas Boyle (guitar/Dobro), David Heath (flute), Kate St. John (oboe), Emma Black and Gerri Sutyak (cellos), and Rory McFarlane (contrabass). And he won’t entertain with his playing alone. He’ll wear something like black-velvet flood pants, a spotted white weskit, and a spiky pineapple hairdo while “chatting up” the audience with amiably condescending patter. But the musicthe music will make it all worthwhile.
The same should hold for Adam Neiman tooalthough he appears on a program entitled “Dream Weavers,” in which the Symphony will weave around Rachmaninov some Elgar and Mendelssohn reveries. Indeed, given the Paganini theme, an even more appealing selection would be the brilliantly sardonic variations of Witold Lutoslawski (d. 1994). That would be chancy, though, not a proven lodestone like the Rachwhose slow variations bespeak full moons and empty arms. But Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini also offers some agile speedy variations that bespeak strenuous passion. And if Neiman plays them as well as he’s expected to, listeners will have no doubt that he too has a future.
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