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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

he succeeds.

"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

basic questions.

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

Kennedy, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New

Brunswick, 877-782-8311. With the Bamberg Symphony Chamber Orchesta.

$25 to $45. Friday, April 14, 8 p.m.

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