Last week’s Birmingham disaster exposed the difficulty Nigel Kennedy has created for himself. He appeared on stage half an hour late, to jeers and slow-clapping from his audience. Rock musicians frequently make late appearances – Hendrix once played a day and a half late at Woodstock – but classical musicians begin promptly. Which is Nigel Kennedy?

Rankin / EMI
Rankin / EMI

His evening of Vivaldi on Wednesday 3rd November in the Royal Albert Hall also began late, due however to a Tube strike rather than any rock-style bad behaviour. It is a testament to Kennedy’s continuing popularity that the Hall was nearly full, and to his affable on-stage persona that latecomers were personally greeted with kisses and matey jokes.

Kennedy was supported by his newly created ‘Orchestra of Life’, a dynamic string orchestra containing more than its fair share of beauties, presumably picked for their talent rather than Nigel’s love of “being surrounded by beautiful women”. The orchestra share their founder’s passion for unusual tempi and orchestration (taking a harmonica rendition of Dvorak’s ‘New World’ played by Kennedy himself in their stride) and dramatic interpretations. An unusual rhythm section including harpsichord and theorbo from Kennedy’s jazz band completed the ensemble and prevented the programme of eight Vivaldi concertos from suffering from a lack of variety, although we could have done without an annoying cymbal brush at the end of every movement.

The stage was shared with three violinists plucked from the orchestra to join Kennedy in three Vivaldi Double concertos and two Bartok duets. These young players were no match for the master’s stagecraft and heart-stopping pyrotechnics but played an excellent second fiddle, willingly launching along any path Kennedy chose to forge. He was also joined by singer Carlene Anderson for a Duke Ellington number and demonstrated his considerable talent for improvisation: avoiding a pale imitation of jazz violin supremo Grappelli, he accompanied the singer in a sensitive and moving performance.

The second half was given over to Kennedy’s best-selling Four Seasons. Once relatively purist, tonight the concertos were treated to extended guitar solos, Armenian Kamancha style cadenzas and some very daring tempo changes; idiosyncratic additions which demonstrated Kennedy’s massive knowledge of musical styles and kept our interest in Vivaldi’s music alive. While it was wonderful to see a classical musician taking so many risks on any stage, much less that of the Albert Hall, some of these risks did not quite come off and we were left with the fervent wish that Kennedy had opted to warn some of his musicians of the tempo changes before diving in with gay abandon.

So what kind of musician is Kennedy? His supreme virtuoso technique points to his being a classical player, whilst his excellent improvisations and Louis Armstrong style singing and repartee suggest a jazz musician and his shambolic appearance, drinking and swearing onstage and love of guitarist-style duelling with other soloists appears to have been influenced by both good and bad rock musicians. The only conclusion seems to be that Kennedy, while sometimes misguided, is entirely his own musician.

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