Violinist Nigel Kennedy has pulled out of a concert at the Royal Albert Hall with only days to go after accusing the radio station Classic FM of preventing him from performing a Jimi Hendrix tribute.
Kennedy said the “culturally prejudiced” decision amounted to “musical segregation”, with the station he now calls “Jurassic FM” preferring him to play Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in Wednesday’s show.
He intended to play some Hendrix with Chineke!, an orchestra of young black and ethnically diverse musicians, until he was told the rock star was “not suitable” for the station’s desired audience. Classic FM, which was hosting the event, preferred for him to play Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
He said that he felt he had no option to withdraw after being informed of the station’s decision.
“This is musical segregation,” he said. “If it was applied to people, it would be illegal. If that type of mentality is rampant in the arts, then we still haven’t fixed the problem of prejudice. This is much more serious than my feathers being a bit ruffled. Prejudice in music is completely dreadful. They’re effectively saying that Hendrix is all right in the Marquee Club, but not in the Albert Hall.”
Kennedy, the bestselling violinist of all time, had the world’s biggest-selling classical hit with his 1989 recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. He is also a longstanding Hendrix fan. In 1999 he released The Kennedy Experience: a collection of eight classical interpretations of songs such as Purple Haze and Third Stone from the Sun.
For Classic FM, he had planned to perform one of Hendrix’s most acclaimed songs, Little Wing, with its “Celtic-sounding melody” given a new rendition in the style of Ralph Vaughan Williams, who was inspired by Celtic songs.
According to Kennedy, he finally decided to pull out after being told that he would not receive adequate rehearsal time, alongside Classic FM telling him how to perform The Four Seasons.
He said: “They were telling me that I had to do it with a conductor, which I’ve never done. The communication between myself and the orchestra is much better than having someone doing semaphore in between them and myself …
“The Berliner Philharmoniker, the best orchestra in the world, never asked me to have a conductor and they never asked me not to rehearse. They take a joy in rehearsing in order to get deeper into the music … I’ve got a name for Classic FM: Jurassic FM.”
Kennedy says half a century of success has been in part due to his unprejudiced style of musicianship. As such, the row with Classic FM was the last straw.
“My whole career has been about bringing down barriers,” he said. “[Hendrix is] one of the foremost composers of the 20th century, along with Stravinsky and Duke Ellington. He brought all types of music together and broke down barriers. Before he died [in 1970], he was talking about taking his music into a more symphonic area. I feel such an affinity with his music.
“Little Wing belonged much more in a classical music concert than my Four Seasons, where I’m quite likely to drag out an electric violin or get a massive group improvisation going on.”
Chineke! was founded in 2015 by Chi-chi Nwanoku, a leading double-bass player, to provide opportunities for young black and ethnically diverse classical musicians.
Kennedy said: “Chi-Chi and Chineke! were saying we want to be seen as a classical orchestra and maybe the Hendrix repertoire’s not right. Classic FM were saying it’s not right for their audience.”
He had waived his fee to work with the young musicians: “Everybody else was going to get paid. I feel sad as they’ve got so much to gain from someone who’s spent their whole life breaking down barriers between different types of music and people.”
But he admitted he was dismayed to be disappointing audiences by abruptly withdrawing from the concert. “But it was really made impossible for me to play,” he said. “It meant we were going to be offering something shoddy to the audience.” On 4 November, he will publish his memoir and release a three CD box set, both titled ‘Uncensored’. The book will cover his life story, from his humble beginnings to becoming a world-class star, the album ranges from classical to more modern genres.
Nwanoku said: “We had nothing to do with Nigel pulling out of this. It’s not up to us what we play in the Classic FM concert. It was decided by Classic FM, who rightly insist that repertoire played at their annual Royal Albert Hall concert is familiar to their loyal listeners. They did not want Jimi Hendrix on Classic FM. No blame should be laid at our feet.
“We were so keen to do the concert with Nigel and had agreed to his request not to have a conductor for The Four Seasons and an extra rehearsal. We’re proud of our collaborations with other genres, including Carl Craig and Stormzy.”
Classic FM declined to comment.