Concert review

Violinist rock star Vanessa-Mae is hooked on classics in Tel Aviv show

Former classical prodigy burns up stages — and ski slopes — while maintaining a comfortable foothold in mainstream music charts

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Violinist Vanessa-Mae performs at Tel Aviv's Heichal Menora on October 28, 2019. (Chai Shalom)
Violinist Vanessa-Mae performs at Tel Aviv's Heichal Menora on October 28, 2019. (Chai Shalom)

A spunky idea was born in the halls of London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the twilight of the 1970s disco era: What if classical music was funked up enough to bring it to mainstream music charts? Called “Hooked on Classics,” the wildly popular debut album eventually spawned a series that only ended 20 years later and paved the way for a new generation of crossover artists.

With rock-star level fame, crossover violinist Vanessa-Mae journeys on similar well-trod roads as Hooked on Classics. But while using hard-won virtuosic skills to bring out familiar music themes, she takes her show to a whole other stratosphere.

At her packed performance in Tel Aviv’s Menora Mivtachim Arena on Monday, Vanessa-Mae was backed by a tight touring rock band that was supplemented by a good-sized local orchestra and singers, who sat behind sheer screens upon which were projected an endless series of screen savers.

Ever in the spotlight and the sole colorfully dressed musician in a sea of black, Vanessa-Mae brings all the glamour and poise of a top-echelon classical soloist.

According to her impressive online bio, she was born to a Thai-Chinese couple in Singapore 41 years ago and moved to London as a young child. She took her first piano lesson at age 3, then moved to violin two years later. She performed with the London Philharmonic at age 10 and recorded her first classical album a few years later. Starting with 1994’s “The Violin Player,” she has firmly moved into the increasingly crowded corps of crossover artists.

Violinist Vanessa-Mae performs at Tel Aviv’s Heichal Menora on October 28, 2019. (Chai Shalom)

She is beauty personified: A knockout in a spaghetti strap, floor-length 1940s style sequined dress, the multi-millionaire former prodigy — who is also an Olympian skier (!) — effortlessly hops from one side of the stage to another, switching from her pedal-amplified electric fiddle to her (unfortunately recently cracked) 1761 acoustic violin.

Vanessa-Mae is a phenomenal talent and a credit to the hours she must have spent on scales and arpeggios. But while she plays the pop and “rock” tunes adequately, it is clearly the violin’s more traditional roles that showcase her prowess. In particular, she executed two exquisite French love songs, and played straight with scant accompaniment. Other tonal highlights were a tango and tunes tinged with shades of klezmer or Spanish trills.

Perhaps to counter her traditional beauty, the producers decided to give her multimedia show a darker grunge underbelly through an all-male back-up band to solidify its mainstream appeal.

Bad-ass bass player Dave became a second heartbeat during the almost two-hour show, while keyboardist Neil showed his genre-mixing chops. Letting his shoulder-length hair fly, equally versatile guitarist Phil was the standout rocker persona. Clad in black leather, winds player Nik easily went either way, and percussionist Fergus played a didgeridoo and moved from musical genre to genre with ease.

Violinist Vanessa-Mae performs at Tel Aviv’s Heichal Menora on October 28, 2019. (Chai Shalom)

With the band and extreme amplification of the violin, the concert certainly was loud. But the adoring fans didn’t seem to mind. Shouts of “Vanessa, make me a child” — in Israeli culture the highest form of praise — floated to the foreground in the marathon show’s few pauses. (Interestingly, when the star descended from stage to walk among the mortals, she was surrounded by a team of security guards who held her phone-wielding fans at arm’s length.)

In the vein of Hooked on Classics, however, the biggest crowd-pleasers were the re-arrangements of well-known themes or classically virtuosic executions of new works.

The dueling violin/organ performance of Bach’s Toccata was really stellar and a feat to behold. And for that number alone, it was a pleasure to spend an evening in Vanessa-Mae’s orbit.

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