Nick Kendall didn’t dilly-dally: 36 months out of the womb, he was wielding a fiddle and bow.
Think about where you were at 36 months.
On second thought, don’t … unless you consider the final stages of potty-training on equal par.
Best known as one-third of the “garage band” string trio Time for Three, Nick will be displaying the violin prowess that began fresh from the crib 31 years ago.
It’s a prowess without boundaries, able to bounce from J.S. Bach to Kanye West in the pluck of a string.
The occasion: Kendall’s guest solo stint with Alastair Willis and the Illinois Symphony Orchestra this weekend — 8 p.m. Friday in the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts and 8 p.m. Saturday in the U of I at Springfield’s Sangamon Auditorium.
Nick is no stranger hereabouts: Time for Three headlined a Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts concert in October 2011, followed by his first solo outing with the ISO a month later, also under Willis’ baton.
Nick matter-of-factly notes that age “3 worked for me.”
Not as in Time for Three, which came much later; but as in the age of 3 … 36 months on terra firma.
Even in child-prodigy terms, 3 is about as young as it gets for budding musicians, he admits, since the urge to play can only be realized when said prodigy can physically handle the instrument.
It didn’t hurt the process that Nick’s paternal grandfather, John Kendall, is the man credited with bringing the famed Suzuki music teaching method to the United States.
Nick, a Japanese-American, was an automatic recipient of same.
“My grandfather had come to Japan after studying in Germany before World War II,” his grandson recalls of the family’s connection to the country.
It was in the post-war era that violinist Shin’ichi Suzuki (1898-1998) began to revolutionize the method of teaching the very young in a way meant to bring beauty into lives devastated by the war.
“He did all these radical things in teaching young kids to play by ear, and having them playing concertos by 8 and 9 years old. That was unheard of then,” Nick continues.
Eventually, John Kendall led the charge in transplanting the unorthodox method stateside, along with adaptations attuned to American classrooms.
Because Nick’s family was constantly on the move, per his father’s job, he wasn’t directly tutored by his trailblazing granddad.
“To me, he wasn’t this famous teacher; I knew him as the guy I went out into the fields with on a tractor … who I helped take care of the chickens,” Nick recalls.
Eventually, though, Nick did get to study with Suzuki himself, at around age “5 or 6 … and my biggest memories are of how much joy and pleasure there was to be making music by myself and with friends in large groups.”
Being a prodigy isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be, however. It can leave one open to being perceived as somehow different, and worse.
“When a kid is perceived as being different, he gets picked on. At that age, I was extremely focused on my violin and went every day to school carrying it around.”
Nick’s focus on the instrument was at the expense of keeping up with popular TV shows, movies and pop music, leaving little to talk about and plenty of questioning looks from the status quo.
An episode he vividly remembers involves a kickball fired directly into his chest, the wind knocked out of his lungs, and his “books and violin sent flying and crashing to the ground.”
The story is much the same for his Time for Three partners — violinist Zach De Pue and bass player Ranaan Meyer — who also suffered similar instances of schoolyard bullying while growing up.
Formed more than a decade ago on the campus of their alma mater, Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, the like-minded trio has established a cache, and rapport, with younger audiences via that aforementioned “garage band” mindset.
“While we are formally trained in the masterworks and the language of classical music,” he says, “our attitude toward music is really very casual by comparison — literally, it’s kind of whatever sounds or feels good. In our minds, that’s what a band does. We have the platform and knowledge of classical music, yet we also give ourselves the freedom to express ourselves.”
That freedom has manifested itself in a variety of diverse ways, including Time for Three’s recent string-trio makeover of Kanye West’s “Stronger” into a music video ode to anti-bullying.
The deeply heartfelt result has created waves in the year or so since it debuted (check it out at www.tf3.com).
The inspiration came when someone turned up wearing a vintage kung-fu-style shirt, which prompted Zach to recall that ultimate bully-movie classic, “The Karate Kid,” in which the picked-on hero makes himself over into something more.
In the video, Nick’s moment with the kickball is memorialized in a scene in which the young protagonist’s instrument is snatched from his hands by the bully and used as a baseball bat, smashing it to smithereens.
Like so many gifted and/or uniquely talented kids, Kendall survived the schoolyard hazing years and stuck to his guns — meaning a clear-eyed focus on his passion, if not the development of martial arts skills a la “The Karate Kid.”
His career to date, both as part of the globe-trotting Time for Three and as a solo artist with the likes of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra, has been the best revenge — though revenge isn’t a word in his vocabulary.
“I’ve been lucky in life in that the career I’ve had as an artist has dissipated a lot of these painful feelings,” he says 30-odd years after he first took bow and fiddle in hand.
“I do know that if more kids had the accessibility to the kind of creativity that I’ve had as part of their curriculum, we’d have fewer outbursts of these bad things happening. All they need is a way to put all that energy onto something creative.”
Bill of fare
Following are notes on the program for this weekend’s ISO concerts with Time for Three’s Nick Kendall:
The Arc Inspired (world premiere): Written specifically for the concert by Kendall’s longtime Time for Three collaborator Steve Hackman, a conductor, arranger, producer, pianist and singer-songwriter. Hackman and Kendall began envisioning the project a year ago, a process that involved both musicians working in unison. Kendall describes the final result as an “ethereal, almost Zen-like” counterpoint to the heavy-duty rigors of the Sibelius piece closing the concert with a bang.
Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration (Tod und Verklarung): Composed over a year from 1888 to 1889, this four-movement piece has been described as a tone poem dealing with the death of an artist — specifically, the artist reviewing his life on his deathbed, from birth to heavenly transfiguration. On his own deathbed 60 years later, Strauss famously observed to his daughter-in-law, “It’s a funny thing, Alice: dying is just the way I composed it in ‘Tod und Verklarung’.”
Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor: This piece, says Kendall, “has always been special to me.” Premiered in 1904 and revised the following year, it was the Finnish-born Sibelius’ only concerto and a famously challenging piece to even the most skilled violinist. It took several decades and its first recording, by Jascha Heifetz, to bring it wide recognition. “It’s notorious for its long climactic lines and very virtuosic writing for the solo part,” says Kendall. “Yet it’s so intertwined within the mix of the orchestral writing that it’s very different from a lot of concertos, where the solo line is very distinct.”
At a glance
What: Illinois Symphony Orchestra, with guest violinist Nick Kendall
When: 8 p.m. Friday (pre-concert talk, 7:15 p.m.)
Where: Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts, 600 N. East St.
Tickets: $5 to $50; under 6, free
Box office: 866-686-9541
Additional performance: 8 p.m. Saturday, Sangamon Auditorium, Springfield