The Fifth Season
Though Vivaldi only entered the canon in the 1930s (thanks to a campaign by Ezra Pound, among others), there are today at least a thousand versions of The Four Seasons on record. Nigel Kennedy has released two. In keeping with his image as the bestselling spike-haired bad boy of classical violin, the second (The New Four Seasons, 2014) is a rocked-up curiosity, complete with bodhrans, distant clouds of electric guitar, electronic bubbling, long improvised passages, and musique concrète interludes involving players barking like dogs. Now 64, Kennedy has released roughly an LP a year since EMI signed him in 1984. A third of them feature his own rock-classical compositions, with folkish jamming and jazz touches, on concept albums such as The Elements (2011). There are also a handful of straight-up jazz albums. His recorded classical repertoire meanwhile is orthodox, with nothing more recent or more astringent than Bartók, and not much that’s earlier than Bach.
This evening, according to the Guardian, Kennedy was due to perform live at the Royal Albert Hall with Chineke!, an orchestra of young, ethnically diverse musicians, in a concert hosted by the radio station Classic FM. They planned to play an arrangement of the Jimi Hendrix song ‘Little Wing’, but Classic FM apparently nixed this, insisting on The Four Seasons yet again. So Kennedy cancelled, accusing the station of ‘prejudice’ and ‘musical segregation’.
Chineke!, it should be noted, have not cancelled – they seem quite ready to swallow a set-list based on known listener preference. As everyone involved must have been aware, Classic FM’s business plan has always involved not straying far from its listener-voted playlists. The soloist now topping the bill is Khatia Buniatishvili, playing Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto.
The final straw for Kennedy was apparently two-fold: inadequate rehearsal time and the insistence that the orchestra have a conductor. The soloist-as-conductor is hardly a wild novelty, and for years Kennedy wouldn’t play with London orchestras because the rehearsal time was so often limited. The unexamined root of the refusal may be less his love of Hendrix than his commitment to on-stage improvisation, a practice once uncomplicatedly central to the classical virtuoso performance, but today largely banished to other kinds of music.
Since its inception in 1992, Classic FM had defined itself against BBC Radio Three’s openness to the more experimental reaches of modern composition – though as so often, the state broadcaster can’t catch a break here. Back in 1980, Robert Wyatt was complaining about the ‘unspoken racism of Radio Three’ for using the ‘phrase “serious music” to describe European academic music and no one else’s’. In 1970 Wyatt’s band Soft Machine had been the first all-electric group to perform at the Proms, as they skirmished cheerfully against divisions between rock, pop, jazz and the classical tape-loop avant-garde, between the earnestly bizarre and quirkily twee.
The early prog-rock approach to processing classical material had been as aggressively unrespectable spectacle, the opposite of counter-revolutionary string-driven gentrification (the canonical example is Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s 1971 version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition). The violin is something of a problem child in rock and jazz – but if Nigel Kennedy Plays Jazz (1984/1990) isn’t that great, at least it’s never timid. In 1999, on The Kennedy Experience, he rescores six Hendrix songs for electric fiddle and group, the sonic-psychedelic effects of the original guitar recast as swoops, smears, high harmonics and percussive scrape.
Over in the middle of the road, crossover is more emollient and can be hugely popular. In the 1920s, Paul Whiteman was the renowned King of Orchestral Jazz. From the 1960s to the 2010s, the German bandleader James Last translated pop and dance hits into a beloved if highly uncool brass-based big band sound. On UK TV in the mid-1970s, Yehudi Menuhin was duetting with the jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli, and the viewing public loved the smiling, well-meaning old men from such different traditions so plainly enjoying themselves together. In 1972, at the age of 16, Kennedy was invited by Grappelli to play on stage with him in New York. Whether emollient or transgressive, he has never lost his commitment to these odd no man’s lands.
All the same, it’s hard to imagine that Kennedy’s fans today require his permission to listen to Hendrix. And the non-standard drones and squeaks the violinist salts into his long stretches of soaring, lyrical play can be found just as easily in his classical performances – on his 1986 version of the Bartók violin sonata, for example. But Bartók is no more a Classic FM regular than Hendrix is, and Kennedy is fighting on this noisy battlefield too far away from two rather different fronts. Inviting black musicians and then having them play black music risks affirming precisely the divisions to be challenged (as Chineke! were perhaps hinting to the Guardian). You can expand the repertoire or you can tackle the lack of diversity in professional orchestras but it’s hard to do both at once, even when the issues are so intimately related. People love to insist that such stunt projects are breaking down barriers – but as popularity often also makes for unfashionability, they may just be moving them instead.
Mocking Kennedy thirty years ago for performing the Berg Violin Concerto wearing vampire make-up and a cloak, the Radio Three controller John Drummond described him as a ‘Liberace for the nineties’. Paganini may be a better comparison: a restless figure of astonishing ability, despised by many critics as a circus performer and accused by others of selling his soul to the devil. Kennedy – who named his son Sark Yves Amadeus Kennedy – seems similarly trapped, a kind of clown maudit with a virtuoso gift for embarrassing nearly everyone nearly all the time. An honest history of this entire reach of stunt music would have to include informed critical appraisal both of Kennedy’s sonic reworkings (shrewd or too obvious?) and of the quality of his improvisation (haunting or merely corny?). But for all his evidently bankable willingness to pick certain fights, such creative decisions are rarely discussed, because all traces of the arcanely musical arguments for them end up smoothly effaced.