Nigel Kennedy on stage during the A Night At Ronnie Scotts: 60th Anniversary Gala at Royal Albert Hall (Photo by Christie Goodwin/Redferns via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

“The new Liberace” strikes again

Nigel Kennedy’s latest principled stand against “Jurassic“ FM and the forces of musical conservatism

Readers of a certain vintage must, inevitably, remember the first flowering of the violinist Nigel Kennedy. For a period in the late Eighties and early Nineties, the spiky-haired musician was as ubiquitous a presence as the poll tax riots, and, as time went on, about as welcome. Yet over the past few years, he has disappeared from sight, popping up occasionally to cause havoc and chase headlines, but generally fading into a kind of self-imposed semi-retirement. But ever so often, like a musical submarine, he resurfaces. The latest news story has been engendered by a falling-out with Classic FM, who he has denigrated, with his usual wit, as “Jurassic FM”, because they have refused to allow him to perform arrangements of Jimi Hendrix songs at the Royal Albert Hall with the orchestra Chineke!, an ensemble composed of BAME and diverse musicians.

Kennedy has raised the spectre of racial prejudice in order to justify his decision to pull out of a high-profile event

Classic FM – admittedly, hardly the last word in hip edginess – was angered that Kennedy would not play the piece with which he was synonymous, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, and that he would not work with a conductor. Kennedy, meanwhile, commented that he had never performed alongside a conductor, and said ‘This is musical segregation. If it was applied to people, it would be illegal. If that type of mentality is rampant in the arts, then we still haven’t fixed the problem of prejudice. This is much more serious than my feathers being a bit ruffled. Prejudice in music is completely dreadful. They’re effectively saying that Hendrix is all right in the Marquee Club, but not in the Albert Hall.”

Kennedy has, knowingly or naively, raised the spectre of racial prejudice in order to justify his decision to pull out of a high-profile event. Disappointed audiences will no longer hear Hendrix’s “Little Wing” performed in the manner of Ralph Vaughan Williams, but will instead find that Kennedy’s fascination with the musician (“one of the foremost composers of the 20th century, along with Stravinsky and Duke Ellington”) will have to be expressed elsewhere. 

Many will applaud him for his principled stand against the forces of musical conservatism, even as Chineke’s founder Chi-Chi Nwanoku made the pained statement that “We had nothing to do with Nigel pulling out of this. It’s not up to us what we play in the Classic FM concert. It was decided by Classic FM, who rightly insist that repertoire played at their annual Royal Albert Hall concert is familiar to their loyal listeners. They did not want Jimi Hendrix on Classic FM. No blame should be laid at our feet. We were so keen to do the concert with Nigel and had agreed to his request not to have a conductor for The Four Seasons and an extra rehearsal.” The cynical might note that Kennedy has a new autobiography, Uncensored, due for publication in November, and that the row has given him a helpful measure of publicity, as well as reinforcing his iconoclastic brand as the least malleable of all classical musicians. Nigel Kennedy, quite literally, dances to his own beat. 

He first achieved fame when he recorded Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons in 1989 with the English Chamber Orchestra, after establishing himself as a skilled interpreter of musicians as disparate as Walton, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius. Even if a cautionary note was struck by his first venture into recording – Nigel Kennedy Plays Jazz – there was something fresh and exciting about the way in which Kennedy interpreted Vivaldi. He seemed more like a pop star than a classical musician, and his energy and charisma saw the album sell over three million copies: an unprecedented amount for a record of this nature. 

If Kennedy had been a less divisive figure, then he would have gone on to the most glittering career of any musician of his generation. Unfortunately, his undeniable star quality went hand in hand with behaviour more in keeping with an especially high-maintenance diva than a formidably talented fiddler. As early as 1991, the Radio 3 controller John Drummond criticised Kennedy for his “ludicrous” clothes, “self-invented accent” and general demeanour, before calling him, devastatingly but accurately, “a Liberace for the nineties.” And this was far from the last criticism of Kennedy as a performer. Many noted that the mockney accent and frequent forays into laddish mateyness sat uneasily with his upbringing; his father John, who abandoned him before he was born, was lead cellist of the London Philharmonic and his mother Scylla was a pianist. He acknowledged in one interview that his accent was a deliberate attempt to move away from the RP that he was brought up in, but his entire life seems to have been an attempt to strike back at an establishment that he felt has looked down on him. He even changed his name simply to ‘Kennedy’ for a while, presumably in the hopes that it sounded edgier than “Nigel”, but the Liberace parallels did not flatter him.

His undeniable star quality went hand in hand with behaviour more in keeping with an especially high-maintenance diva

To see Kennedy in performance was not to witness a talented musician working seamlessly alongside an orchestra, but instead the spectacle of an erratic, often brilliant figure hellbent on pursuing his own agenda. He would often improvise solos, such as his Hendrix-aping cadenza with which he would finish his performance of Beethoven’s violin concerto, and made a habit of giving the musicians fist bumps, along with calling everyone “man”. Once out of the concert hall, his behaviour followed suit. He is – naturally – a socialist who praised “that Jeremy Corbyn guy” as “fantastic” and who believes that Israel is not only operating a policy of apartheid but should be boycotted at all costs. The BBC had to censor his remarks from a 2013 Proms performance in which he commented “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a bit facile to say it but we all know from experiencing this night of music tonight, that given equality, and getting rid of apartheid, gives a beautiful chance for amazing things to happen.”

“Facile” would seem a good description for many of Kennedy’s utterances. Yet many, especially those who share his politics, defend him as someone who stands up against the dull forces of conservatism and tradition. In the blue corner is “Jurassic FM”, a radio station that has been much criticised for giving its listeners what they want, and – naturally –the so-called “punk violinist” himself stands in the red corner, with a memoir to promote and an axe to grind. And, stuck in the middle, are Chineke!, who have now been deprived of a chance to perform a high-profile concert because, not for the first time, Nigel Kennedy’s principles have outweighed what might have been a considerably greater good. At least Liberace, for all his luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing absurdity, played the piano, rather than lambasting all those around him for daring to suggest that he might occasionally have to compromise. 

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