Home > Music > Musicology > Information on syllabus topics > Information on syllabus topics

Music Magician

It seems inevitable that Kennedy, or "the artist-formerly-known-as-Nigel", should visit Australia and play with, the Sydney Symphony. He represents the third generation of Kennedys to do so.

Nigel Kennedy's paternal grandparents Lauri (cello) and Dorothy (piano) settled in Australia, where both had successful careers.

Their son John at age 24 played first cello with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, making him the youngest principal in Great Britain. He joined the Sydney Symphony in 1949, as principal, and made his mark in more than one way.

In his book, Play On! 60 years of music-making with the Sydney Symphony (ABC Books), Phillip Sametz relates how John Kennedy would twirl his cello on its spike between phrases, for example, and instead of using the bow for creating a tremolando effect, he would shake the cello from side to side. This he did in a performance of the Elgar concerto under conductor Otto Klemperer. Maestro Klemperer was not impressed. But John Kennedy's wit and sense of fun usually ensured that no reprimand would follow his excursions into controlled mayhem.

Once, after a performance, a group of SSO players met for supper at a friend's place in Kings Cross. As they were leaving, a noisy John Kennedy told the inquiring policeman that yes, it was indeed a machine gun he was carrying under his arm and not a musical instrument.

After teaching at the NSW Conservatorium of Music for two years and performing a few concerts for Musica Viva, he returned to the UK, where he took up the position of principal cello at Covent Garden.

In 1959 he returned to Australia as senior cello lecturer at Melbourne University's conservatorium.

Little did he know that his girlfriend Scylla, whom he'd left behind, was carrying a boy who would be named Nigel.

Kennedy later related how his father raised a family of his own in Australia, unaware of his previous progeny. Raised by his music teacher mother, Nigel did not meet John until he was 16 years old. They met again a few years later; by now Kennedy would look out for his father at parties and other venues where alcohol was available. He once said of that period of his life that he was young and ill-equipped to look after an alcoholic father. John Kennedy died in the mid-80s.

It would be tedious to describe Kennedy as a tearaway or a rebel or some other word for a young person who "likes to dress strangely, but doesn't he play wonderfully?".

He is simply a consummate musician who has influenced possibly a whole generation towards artistic excellence, vivid forms of expression and artistic individuality. He plays with passion, conviction and great musicality. Who cares if he looks like a rock star? Liszt did it 100 years before Kennedy. Hair, clothes and accent should never get in the way of the appreciation of great musicianship.

In Kennedy's case, a new, younger audience has been wooed to the classical stables, initially perhaps for superficial reasons, but still, this is a good thing. When the 20-somethings of the 1980s recall with fondness their love of Vivaldi, we have Kennedy to thank. These 40-plus folk will have passed on some Viv (as Kennedy likes to refer to Vivaldi) to their own children, and so the cycle continues.

Kennedy's American tour of 1998 prompted The Times to write: "The barricades of elitism that hinder the mass appreciation of classical music are being breached once more."

"People can say I'm a classical violinist if they want to but I've always viewed myself as a musician who plays music and not just a certain part of it," Kennedy himself once remarked.

Fair enough, too. Musical categories were only created so 78s, LPs and CDs could be placed in pigeonholes in record shops and punters would know where to find them.

Kennedy studied at the Sir Yehudi Menuhin School in England, on a scholarship that was paid for by Menuhin himself, before moving on to the Juilliard School of Music in New York, where he studied under Dorothy DeLay.

He admits to having modelled himself on Menuhin in his teenage years, because he had no other male role model to follow. That didn't work at all. Menuhin was quiet, reserved, peaceful, words that did not sum up his adolescent protege.

For his London concert debut Kennedy played the Mendelssohn violin concerto with the Philharmonia under Riccardo Muti, at the Royal Festival Hall.

His playing is highly regarded by the harshest of critics and his classical recordings have fared much better than his "alternative" ones. Kennedy's disastrous Jimi Hendrix album was a case in which less would have been more and perhaps complete silence would have been better.

The band's idea of developing a musical idea was to play each song louder, faster and more discordantly as it progressed. Songs were well over eight minutes long. The result was an incoherent mess. The ABC's Andrew Ford gave it a favourable review. Brave man. The pieces may have worked a treat on the performance circuit but as a recording... next please!

Well over 100 years before Kennedy, possibly the first classical rock star was shining brightly over Europe and London. Franz Liszt transfixed his audiences. He would woo them with his sublime excellence. His technique, which was by all accounts brilliant, would go largely unnoticed by his entranced audience. Liszt was fired up after seeing Paganini perform. He vowed to be the "Paganini of the piano". In some ways, Kennedy doing Hendrix is like Liszt doing Paganini.

But before the jury delivers its verdict on Kennedy's alternative recording repertoire, it should be noted that not every recording or concert is going to be a number one smash hit. Top musicians, like actors and athletes, should be allowed to have bad days, just like the rest of us. Anyone who has to live with the intense daily scrutiny that is part of the life of a Nigel Kennedy, a Robert de Niro or a Steve Waugh, may feel the need to retaliate on occasion. Paul McCartney should be remembered for Yesterday, not Magneto and Titanium Man.

Kennedy's recording of the Four Seasons, with Vernon Handley and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, was pure mastery. It made Vivaldi hip and funky, if only for 15 minutes. It was released in 1989 and at the time entered the Guinness Book of Records as the highest-selling classical album of all time. His playing was precise and aggressive. His intonation was faultless and the blistering pace he set in the first movement of Spring was invigorating to say the least, exhilarating to say the most.

Kennedy's debut for EMI came in 1984, when he recorded the Elgar violin concerto with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vernon Handley. The recording was voted Gramophone Record of the Year (1985) and won a BRIT award for Classic Record of the Year.

In 1998 he re-recorded the Elgar, this time with Sir Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. The (UK) Telegraph's critic wrote that the unaccompanied cadenza in the finale had "a greater spine-tingling eeriness than I have ever experienced before", and that the closing bars unleashed "a quite shattering intensity".

In April 1997, Kennedy's decision to return to the concert stage after a four-year break knocked the UK general election off the front page of many a national paper. The Times critic wrote: "Only one British violinist in my lifetime has produced anything as bold and exhilarating as that. It is his playing, though, that most reveals Kennedy's new maturity. No other violinist on earth could manage the astonishing stylistic transition presented." Not a bad write-up to follow a four-year performance hiatus.

Kennedy performs Edward Elgar's violin concerto on 29 and 31 March at the Opera House, with Edo de Waart conducting the Sydney Symphony.

After that, who knows what his next move will be? Rumour has it that the-artist-formerly-known-as-Prince is looking for a new fiddle player.

Another String: The unofficial Nigel Kennedy fan site. Selecting this link will take you to an external site.

Go To Top

2mbs logo.gif

The above article was published in the 2MBS-FM monthly magazine 'Fine Music' March 2001. It is reproduced here courtesy of 2MBS-FM 102.5. Selecting this link will take you to an external site.

Neals logo | Copyright | Disclaimer | Contact Us | Help