You’ve heard it in shopping malls. You’ve heard it in elevators. No doubt you’ve even heard it on the telephone, while waiting on hold. But you’ve never heard Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons like this before.
On August 8, the flamboyant British violinist Nigel Kennedy and members of his Poland-based Orchestra of Life joined with the Palestine Strings ensemble at the Royal Albert Hall in London for a very unorthodox performance of the Baroque classic for a BBC Proms broadcast. With musicians drawn mostly from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the Palestine Strings is an orchestra of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, a school founded in the Israeli-occupied territories in 1993 and named in 2004 for Said, the influential Palestinian-born writer, theorist and music aficionado who died the previous year.
The 17 members of the Palestine Strings who traveled to London ranged from 13 to 23 years old. They wore black-and-white checkered keffiyehs over their suits and dresses as a show of national pride. In the performance (shown above in its entirety), Kennedy and his collaborators followed the basic outline of Vivaldi’s four-concerto suite, but made frequent excursions into jazz and Arabic music. As Helen Wallace writes at BBC Music Magazine:
Into a basic rhythm section set-up — the irresistible bassist Yaron Stavi and Krzysztof Dziedzic on subtle percussion without drum kit, 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.