Interview: violinist Tim Kliphuis on reimagining Vivaldi’s Four Seasons

Tim Kliphuis
Tim Kliphuis
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Imagine the high-tension opening of the Winter movement in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – that inexorable blizzard of staccato string chords – being taken up by a jazz violin trio, violinist, guitarist and double-bassist all having their gleeful way with the deathless music that the Venetian left us three centuries ago.

It isn’t as outré a concept as you might think: numerous musicians have enjoyed their own take on the Seasons over the years, from the Swingle Singers and Jacques Loussier to Argentinian bandoneon player and composer Astor Piazzolla. Now, however, Le quattro stagioni has been re-imagined by the acclaimed Dutch swing violinist Tim Kliphuis and his virtuosic trio with Dublin-based-Scots guitarist Nigel Clark and Edinburgh double-bassist Roy Percy, who will perform the piece with a trio of Scottish string players – Seonaid Aitken, Francesca Hunt and Su-a Lee – in a Scottish tour later this month marking the trio’s tenth anniversary.

Speaking from his home in Hilversum – that town dear to the hearts of veteran radio listeners – Kliphuis describes his Seasons project as “holding a mirror up” to Vivaldi’s four violin concerti, and his arrangement as a deeply respectful reworking of them: “If you just take the Mickey out of the piece and start playing Duke Ellington or something in the middle of it, that doesn’t make musical sense and just becomes a parody. I take it seriously,” he says.

Rather than regarding the project as some iconoclastic fusion of jazz and classical, Kliphuis, who is also a trained classical player, sees it as part of a wider gradual re-acknowledgement of the art of improvisation by a classical genre which largely forgot it during the 20th century. Improvisation was particularly par for the course for the exuberant violin pyrotechnics of the baroque. These days, Kliphuis finds himself teaching the skill to classical students at the Amsterdam Conservatory where he himself once studied.

“Of course, Vivaldi himself was an improviser and in fact, if you go one step further, composition itself is improvisation, because you think up a theme or motif then think, ‘What am going to do with this?’ So you stretch it, bend it, turn it upside down … and that’s what composition is but it’s also what you do when you improvise, only then you’re doing it live.

“We see ourselves as basically improvising chamber musicians and that’s what gets us, I think, so close to the heart of this piece.”

Their recording, Reflecting the Seasons, newly released on Sony Classical, is with the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, with whom the trio had worked before and who commissioned the re-working for a Vivaldi festival. For the Scottish gigs, the three jazz musicians will play with a trio of Seonaid Aitken, who plays with the Orchestra of Scottish Opera and leads and sings with the swing jazz outfit Rose Room, Royal Scottish National orchestra viola player Francesca Hunt, and cellist (and musical saw specialist) Su-a Lee of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Mr McFall’s Chamber. “So we’ve made our tenth anniversary tour a celebration of the trio with three friends we’ve worked with in the past,” says Kliphuis.

Also touring towards the end of this month (and their Beauty and the Beast recording with US saxophonist Bill Evans is just out) is the unstoppable Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, joined by New York vibraphone star Joe Locke and the US West Coast’s vocalist of choice, Kenny Washington, in a programme of music by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mandel. Rather like Kliphuis’s Vivaldi, expect classics of their kind, such as Moon River, The Pink Panther and Shadow of Your Smile to be given a respectful but distinctly characterful big band treatment by Tommy Smith and his SNJO colleagues. ■

*The Tim Kliphuis Trio plays Eden Court, Inverness, on 15 February; Cottiers, Glasgow, 16 February; Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 17 February; Hospitalfield House, Arbroath, 18 February. See www.timkliphuis.com

The SNJO play Gardyne Theatre, Dundee, on 24 February; Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 25 February; Royal Conservatoire, Glasgow, 26 February. See www.snjo.co.uk