When Nigel Kennedy walks out on Meyerhoff Hall stage to play Bruch's G Minor Violin Concerto with the Baltimore Symphony tonight, he may become the first fiddle player in BSO history to play in blue suede shoes, baggy pants, a purple vest, a sequined jacket and spiked hair.
"I don't wear tails and things like that, just don't feel comfortable like that," the 34-year-old violinist says in a cockney accent that sounds straight out of Charles Dickens. "If you don't feel comfortable, it's no good, is it, mate?"
The young British violinist has reason to feel very comfortable. His 1990 recording of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" hit the top of the pop charts worldwide, with more than a million sales in Great Britain alone. His most recent recording of Brahms' Violin Concerto, which arrived at American record shops this week, is advertised in Britain in subway cars and on billboards at truck stops.
In a nation that has always tended to look down upon its own classical musicians, Kennedy has been accorded the status of a pop icon. It's not unusual for him to play to stadium audiences of more than 20,000, and when he decided a few months back not to play Mozart during the composer's current bicentennial -- because everyone else was -- he made headlines.
To judge from his records, he is a remarkable musician. His recording of the Elgar and Walton Violin Concertos may be the best since those of the young Heifetz and Menuhin. His unconventional approach to repertory is suggested by another celebrated record that couples Bartok's thorny Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin with melodies by Duke Ellington.
"I've always thought of music as something that doesn't need to be divided into categories," Kennedy says. "I never have called myself a classical musician -- just a musician. I have my own improvisation band, and my own rock band. Great music is great music, whether it's Bartok, Ellington or the Beatles."
Kennedy says that learning to like rock music was something that happened quite naturally when he was a student at Yehudi Menuhin's school for musical prodigies.
"At first, I thought pop music was sh-t," he says. "Then I became a little older and realized that some of the girls I liked were listening to it. I thought that if I wanted to hang with these chicks, I better learn to like it."
Kennedy's success does not seem to have gone to his head, but he certainly appreciates it.
"We certainly got rid of a few of them!" he says in a reference to the sales of his "Four Seasons." "That record paid for my new fiddle. I used to play a Stradivarius, but this one is a Guarnerius del Gesu. A great Strad is like Catherine Deneuve -- always perfectly beautiful but always sounding the same. A great del Gesu is just as beautiful, but it always sounds a little different under different circumstances. It's sort of like . . ."
Like Sophia Loren?
"That's it exactly, mate!" Kennedy exclaims. "Now I just can't wait to get my hands on my fiddle."