Nigel Kennedy on the Future of Classical Music

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Nigel Kennedy Advocates Populism as Way Forward for Classical Music

 When it comes to touring violinists these days, it’s hard to find anyone who has done worked on as many diverse projects as Nigel Kennedy. Although he began his career mainly in the classical field—including a recording of The Four Seasons that sold over 2 million copies—he later expanded his repertoire to include several other genres. Kennedy plays the standard violin concerti, but he also performs jazz, rock, and even klezmer music. So it’s no surprise that the violinist who plays a Jimi Hendrix-inspired cadenza to the Beethoven concerto is currently working on a tour that combines the music of J.S. Bach and Fats Waller. Strange as it might sound, Kennedy says the composers actually work together quite nicely:

A whole evening of Bach would be really heavy and because Fats Waller’s songs are so short, two hours of that would be hard to take too. This is a good mix of hard-core classical music in the first half then more light-hearted, enjoy-the-moment stuff in the second.

Kennedy says that Bach and Waller are two composer he really admires. He first came into contact with the famous jazz pianist in his stepfather’s record collection; the lasting impact can be seen in Kennedy’s active career as a jazz violinist. While a Bach and Waller concert is unusual, the reasoning does make sense. Combining the long and heavy works of Bach with short, easy-going songs of Waller provides a contrast that allows the audience to both listen deeply and relax.

More importantly, according to Kennedy, classical musicians need to play these kinds of concerts. If not Fats Waller and Bach, then they have to play at least something outside of the mainstream. Back when Kennedy began his career, it was almost suicidal for a young violinist to perform outside of the classical cannon. Nowadays, he claims, any young classical musician who doesn’t also perform popular music “hasn’t got a chance.”

Kennedy credits record companies with many of the changes in musical culture that young musicians are dealing with. Record companies no longer spend money on artist development; they simply pick up someone younger when the old artist ages out. This used to be true of mostly pop music, but Kennedy claims it has spread to classical acts as well. Now, in order to survive, classical violinists must live more broadly as simply violinists. Instead of recording a major concerto and expecting the album to sell, musicians must undertake projects that are unique and capable of attracting the public interest. With CD sales down are downloading on the rise, musicians will have to rely more on live performances. In order to fill the seats, they will have to interest listeners with their projects—they will have to become more populist.

Kennedy makes an interesting point that reflects the changing world we live in. In the 20th century, a solo violinist could earn a living solely in their own field, with live concerts and recordings generating most of their livelihood. Now, however, with free videos on YouTube, and internet users downloading albums (both legally and illegally), it’s not hard to get a quick fix of your favorite violinist. Or your favorite jazz musician. Or the latest pop hit. This doesn’t mean that the classical violinist as we know him is dead. It means that, as a free market requires, he will have to reinvent himself in order to survive. Great performances of solo Bach will remain, but they might have to share the spotlight with other genres. What do you think? Is Nigel Kennedy’s assessment of the need for populism in classical music correct? Or should Bach and Fats Waller respectfully reside on their own stages? Comment below!

One Response to Nigel Kennedy on the Future of Classical Music

  1. Elsie Stockdale September 27, 2012 at 6:13 pm #

    I’m with Nigel on this one. Anything that gets people listening to him playing Bach, which I find quite beautiful, is fine with me. Besides, his “populist” concerts have a way of being highly enjoyable to listen to, so what’s not to like ?

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