Nigel Kennedy, the former enfant terrible of classical music, took the world by storm in the 1980s with his spiky hair and spiky rendition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, loved by some and hated by others.He seemed then to appear out of nowhere but in fact he comes from a family of musicians and his talent was recognised at a very early age. A child prodigy, at the age of 7, he was seen by Yehudi Menuhin, who offered him a scholarship at the
For a while, he left the classical music scene, dabbling in jazz and working with various pop icons, but he has since come back to classical music. In 2008 he returned to the Proms to play Elgar’s Violin Concerto and again in 2015 to play The Four Seasons.
So what to make of this controversial, outspoken, extraordinarily talented man, as he nears his 70th birthday? Well, the hair, though grey, is still spiky and his clothes and his manner are decidedly unconventional: in the second half of the concert his jacket had a picture of one of his heroes, Jimi Hendrix, on it.His programme notes are equally unusual: for example, the last movement of Bach’s Violin Concerto no. 1 is described thus: ‘This is a bit of a barnstormer.Starry folk elements meet with the polyphonic counterpoint.I always enjoy the rumbustious ebb and flow – gothic folk music!’ This was the first Bach Concerto played and, indeed, the first time he improvised (the first of several improvisations), his melody sounding for all the world like . . . . . .a folk dance.
His introductions are informative and funny, but when he starts playing he is absolutely concentrated on the music. He loves Bach and is on a crusade to spread Bach’s music to a wider audience with this tour with the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra. The programme is four of Bach’s violin concertos: no 1 in A minor; no. 2 in E major; concerto for violin and oboe in D minor and concerto for two violins in D minor. He intersperses these with more modern pieces – though not always the ones listed in the programme. He played his own composition Melody in the Wind, but also Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence in honour of his friend, composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, who died earlier this year. A couple of times he discarded his violin briefly and played the piano - Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence for instance.
What also comes across is his humanity, his enthusiasm, not only for the music, but also for people: his fellow musicians and also the audience. He is full of praise for others: for the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra and the other soloists – Nicholas Daniel on the oboe and Anna-Lüsa Bezrodny on violin – and they respond to him. He is rarely still when he is playing and the orchestra sway with him.
A quick mention of St. Edward’s amazing new award-winning concert hall, the Olivier Hall, with a capacity of 1,000. Acoustically it is wonderful: it also suited this particular performer very well because he obviously loves interacting with the audience: hang onto your glass of wine if you are on the front row!
An evening with Nigel Kennedy is like no other musical evening: the joy of beautiful music played with such skill and such enthusiasm and sheer joie de vivre. You leave the hall feeling better about the world.