Herb Greer goes to Oxford to hear Nigel Kennedy play Elgar and Beethoven with a student rchestra. As long as he plays like this, we can forgive him his mannered eccentricityby Herb Greer / July 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Some years ago in a Radio 3 lecture, the British composer Thea Musgrave paused in full flight. “There is one thing you must remember,” she said, “music is chaps doing things.”
Sitting in the Sheldonian Hall at Oxford last month, I had cause to reflect on this. The occasion was a concerto concert by Nigel Kennedy, playing the Beethoven D major and the Elgar B minor. Waiting among an expectant crowd, I wondered what Kennedy would pull out of the hat. He was returning to the concert stage after a fallow period, and playing with a student orchestra. Was there an arri?re-pens?e in all this?
Kennedy’s skill has never been in doubt, and the stories about his eccentricity had not concerned me much. Polisson soloists of one kind or another, are nothing new. There was the time when Paganini stopped, ripped three strings off his fiddle, and played the rest of the concert on one string while the audience went wild. Franz Liszt, too, liked to impress the punters with the force of his playing, striking great chords that snapped the specially weakened strings of a piano. When the gasps and applause had subsided, he would swan over to a spare instrument conveniently close by, to continue his recital. Beside these ploys, Kennedy’s brush haircut, his affected “Yeah, like…” barrow boy dialect and those louche costumes are anodyne. Hardly noticeable, really.
I did know from good sources that Kennedy had rehearsed carefully with the orchestra, making sure they gave him exactly what he wanted. From the first moments of the Beethoven a striking effect was evident in their playing. This was not the first time I had heard the Oxford University Chamber orchestra. They are the elite among the several student orchestras at the university, and their playing is normally of an excellent amateur standard. But now they were playing above that level, with a startling clean polish and phrasing. I knew that Kennedy’s working relationship with them was close and friendly on a personal level, but that could have been dangerous. An over-chummy approach can lead to sloppiness below the call of duty. In this case that did not happen. It was clear at once that Kennedy is one of those musicians with the sorcerer’s power of inspiring excellence in lesser performers around him.
After Kennedy’s unscheduled overture-Bach’s prelude to the E major Partita for solo violin-his influence…