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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on April 12, 2000. All rights reserved.
With Kennedy, Just Kennedy, Music’s an Adventure
Violinist Kennedy no longer uses his first name, Nigel,
for classical concerts. He sports a punk hairdo, with spikey outcroppings
of hair in prominent relief. His publicity shots show him glowering
and he prides himself on his five-o’clock shadow. To the classical
core of his repertoire he has annexed rock music. His concert dress
is wildly unconventional. Clearly, he is determined to shock, and
"For dopey stage attire," San Francisco music critic Joshua Kosman
has noted, "Kennedy continues to top his earlier efforts at Emmett
Kelly chic. His outfit included one spotted cravat around his neck
and another serving as a belt, shirt hanging out, jacket sleeves hiked
up above the elbows, and one black and one pink sock. On what planet
is this amusing?"
Eccentricities aside, Kennedy can hold his own with any penguin-suited
performer who plays the music of dead Europeans. He plays a 1735 Giuseppe
Guarneri del Gesu violin called "La Fonte," having traded
in his Stradivarius for an instrument with greater heft. His appearance
at the State Theater on Friday, April 14, with Germany’s Bamberg Symphony
Chamber Orchestra will include piano concertos by Johann Sebastian
Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven. His credentials include study with
Yehudi Menuhin at the Menuhin School in England, and with Dorothy
DeLay at New York’s Juilliard School.
In New Brunswick Pieter Daniel conducts an ensemble selected from
the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra. Sandwiched between the Bach violin
concerto No. 1 in A minor and the Beethoven violin concerto in D major,
are six selections from "Classic Kennedy," the new release
on which Kennedy both conducts and solos with the English Chamber
Orchestra. Paul Somers, editor of Classical New Jersey magazine, gives
a pre-performance lecture at 7 p.m.
As a recording artist Kennedy made it into the Guinness Book of Records
after the release of Vivaldi’s "Four Seasons," in which he
was both soloist and conductor. The album was cited as "the best-selling
classical recording of all time;" more than 2 million copies were
sold, and it stayed at the top of the UK classical charts for almost
a year. His new CD for EMI, "Classic Kennedy," zoomed to the
top of the charts in Britain when it was released in the fall. Someone
in his corner is counting and watching.
Now 43, Kennedy was not available for an interview. However, in February,
Mary Campbell of the Associated Press collected his answers to a few
Kennedy comes from a musical family. Both his father and his grandfather,
neither of whom he met, were cellists. "My mom was a single mother
and a piano teacher," he says, "and that doesn’t bring in
money for baby sitters. I sat under the piano." At seven, Kennedy
began at the Menuhin School.
"I got into the Menuhin School on piano," Kennedy says. "Yehudi
Menuhin invented a scholarship for me. It took me a long time before
I enjoyed playing violin. At first I got a fairly gruesome sound.
The first couple of years I wasn’t making great progress and I was
unhappy away from home. I would look for the darker, deeper side of
the violin instead of the shrill, pristine sound it’s well capable
of." In addition to training with Menuhin, Kennedy also studied
with Dorothy DeLay, the renowned Juilliard pedagogue.
The subject of a five-year documentary by BBC-TV on the making of
a soloist, Kennedy, by his late 20s, had played with the major European
orchestras. At 28 he made his first recording of the Elgar concerto.
As the 1980s wore on, however, Kennedy found himself less tethered
to classical music. He took to playing in late-night venues after
concerts. Many critics detected an audible decline in his classical
In 1992 he withdrew from classical performance. His comeback came
five years later, and drew front page headlines, although it happened
just before a general election in Britain. "It was described as
a sabbatical," Kennedy says. "I was doing music all the time,
apart from seven months when I had an operation on my neck and was
healing. I practiced Bach every morning. Bach is like all values of
music rolled into one. I learned a bit of cello, saxophone and guitar.
I wrote my own music. I said, `I’m never going to play classical music
again. If you’re going to record me, you’re going to have to record
my stuff.’ [But] no way could I believe, inside, I wasn’t going to
approach classical music again.’"
Kennedy resists being classified. "I’ve always been
very keen to avoid any genre preconceptions. I’m interested in the
music itself. There’s nothing I like better than playing Beethoven
with a symphony, straight-ahead jazz with a great jazz group, or playing
some top rock music with a great musician like Robert Plant. I like
music to be an adventure."
Kennedy’s new CD "Classic Kennedy," with the English Chamber
Orchestra, consists of 20 brief selections, and has a total playing
time just short of 80 minutes. The pieces include works from the literature
for solo violin and orchestra (including a movement excerpted from
Vivaldi’s "Four Seasons," Sarasate’s "Zigeunerweisen,"
and Rimsky-Korsakoff’s "Flight of the Bumble-Bee); transcriptions
of folk songs ("Scarborough Fair" and "Danny Boy"); transcriptions
of music for piano (including a Chopin nocturne, Satie’s "Gymnopedies,"
and Gershwin "Preludes"); a version of Joni Mitchell’s
"Urge for Going;" and an original composition by Kennedy,
"Melody in the Wind." Kennedy himself had a hand in the arrangements.
The CD might expand the horizons of listeners with short attention
spans who discover an interest in music that they have never before
heard. The album was No. 1 on the U.K. classical charts last fall.
And I wish that I could be honestly grateful for having heard it.
Unfortunately, on the whole, I found the album seriously lacking both
in conception and in execution, both musically and technically.
For one thing, the all-encore format left me wishing for meat. Furthermore,
I thought that the transcriptions of the piano works lost their character
in translation. Correspondingly, the bloated arrangements of the folk
songs, of Bach’s "Air on the G String," and of the Bach-Gounod
"Ave Maria" deformed the originals. Kennedy’s imaginative
ornaments in the "Air on the G String" were defeated by the
unfocused sound endemic throughout the album. To my taste, the most
satisfying pieces were the two crispest items on the disc: "Flight
of the Bumble-Bee" and Handel’s "Arrival of the Queen of Sheba."
In addition, other choices on the recording left me unhappy. I was
distressed by the frequent failure to shape phrases and give them
a musical impact; the peak of a musical line was habitually slithered
past, rather than emphasized. Most distressing of all, was the intonation.
Kennedy often settled for pitches that were simply too flat. Moreover,
his strategy in an upward leap left me unsatisfied; he habitually
arrived slightly short of the target pitch, and then eased up into
it. I know that the problem was not my CD player; recently, it let
me hear the superb precision and transparency of the Los Angeles Guitar
Quartet (U.S. 1, March 29, 2000).
Am I suggesting that you avoid the concert? By all means, no. Kennedy
invites controversy. Indeed, he seems to thrive on it. The only way
to decide what you think about this performer is to hear him live,
and pay attention to the response of your own ears. Unavoidably, that
means playing into his scheme for eccentricity by supporting it at
the box office.
— Elaine Strauss
Brunswick, 877-782-8311. With the Bamberg Symphony Chamber Orchesta.
$25 to $45. Friday, April 14, 8 p.m.
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