Fiddling with fire

Award-winning violinist Vanessa-Mae comes to Israel for the first time.

Vanessa Mae  (photo credit: LIVENATION)
Vanessa Mae
(photo credit: LIVENATION)
The violin can be the most soulful of instruments. The vast majority of classical music concerts feature at least one player of the four-stringed instrument, doing their earnest best to eke out emotive sounds and tug on our heartstrings in the process.
The said players were always almost completely static, seated or standing. Then, around 30 years ago, that image began stirring somewhat with the emergence of British violinist Nigel Kennedy, who played classical, klezmer and jazz in a much more animated manner. Having a spiky punk-esque hairdo helped to push the marketing envelope even further.
Fast forward a few years and a young wunderkind by the name of Vanessa-Mae – far more user friendly that her full moniker, Vanessa-Mae Vanakorn Nicholson – leaps onto the international stage, full of youthful spunk and joie de vivre. Mae, who turns 41 the day before her 9 p.m. October 28 concert here at Menorah Mivtachim Arena in Tel Aviv, took the classical world by storm and soon branched out into other more contemporary and commercially-oriented areas of entertainment.
The Singapore-born, British-bred violinist simply exploded onto the scene and, at the age of 13, she became the youngest soloist to record both the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky violin concertos. As serious and well-received as her classical efforts were, the youngster also wanted to get into some here-and-now-dynamics. Her first pop-style album, The Violin Player, came out in 1995. A couple of years later she played on the 1997 Janet Jackson album The Velvet Rope, performing a brief, but compelling, violin solo on the title track.
While gaining a more than decent grounding in the classical climes, she was keen to set a marker for a new generation of entertainment consumers. On The Violin Player she dipped her nimble fingers into some of the staples of the discipline and infused with the energy and sensibilities of people her own age. The album features, for example, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor which opens in familiar fashion but, before too long, it’s fasten your safety belts time as the violinist launches into blistering stratospheric mode.
As far as Vanessa-Mae is concerned that was just the natural next step to take. “I had the chance to make a crossover album which, back in those days, was completely new,” she notes. “Yes, you had the greats of jazz like Stéphane Grappelli and Jean-Luc Ponty,” referencing one of the pioneers of gypsy jazz while the latter successfully branched out into jazz-rock fusion realms. “And Nigel Kennedy opened up the world of marketing, with [Vivaldi’s] The Four Seasons, but there wasn’t really anyone who was taking classical tunes and modernizing them. I became known for that.”
And how. Once she battered down the door of the classical sector she careened her way into a whole slew of works, imbuing them with her silky skills and no-holds-barred fervor, and offering her audiences a much more dynamic eyeful than the aforesaid stock deliveries of music that had been performed in much the same style for centuries.
It was just a matter of mining the rich seams of magnificent material that had evolved across the ages. Vanessa-Mae wanted to express herself fully though music that fed directly off the same mind-set of her own contemporaries, and the next lot down. “There was new music that was written for me, or that I sometimes co-wrote, although not so much, so there was music that was absolutely brand new, by living composers,” she says. “That was 25 years ago. I am very grateful for being that 15 year old, and kind of trailblazing and helping to introduce people to different kinds of music.”
Vanessa-Mae is all for stepping out into choppy uncharted waters, and testing out the sink-or-swim hypothesis. “I think it’s important to go outside your comfort zone. Comfort zones are great but why live if you are going stay in your comfort zone? That’s how I see it.”
More than a quarter of a century since she first got music-lovers and industry professionals alike to sit up and take note, Vanessa-Mae is still pushing. Her bio is chock full of enterprising endeavor and risk-taking, including a spot on a jazz improv album with late rock icon Prince. “Nobody gets hurt, or should get hurt, in music. At least try something, even if it all goes wrong. That’s living, you know.”
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