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Review: Nigel Kennedy & Friends, Symphony Hall, Birmingham

The always irrepresible violin star Nigel Kennedy was in high spirits, even by his standards, for his gala concert at his favourite Birmingham venue after Villa Park.

Review: Nigel Kennedy & Friends, Symphony Hall, Birmingham

The audience could hear roars and guffaws from backstage led by the impish 60-year-old (yes, the former wunderkind will qualify for his bus pass in five years) before the concert had even begun.

Maybe it was due to his claret and blue team's 2-0 home victory that afternoon over Sheffield Wednesday but it was certainly also because Kennedy was surrounded by his musical friends, including fellow former students of New York's prestigious Juilliard School of music and one of his violin heroes, the pioneering jazz-rock fiddler Jean-Luc Ponty.

Kennedy took a near sellout audience on a three and a half hour musical journey from Bach to Led Zeppelin via the Balkans, and it was exhilarating.

The mercurial bowman with trademark spiked hair showed both his dynamism and deftness of touch in the opening concerto from JS Bach, then came a truly impressive duet with cellist Peter Adams on Halvorsen's Passacaglia after Handel.

"It's hard to get a grip on this Handel," quipped our Nige, revealing that he also busked this challenging piece outside Tiffany's Diamonds in NYC as a student to make some money.

For all the fist bumping and joking around, Kennedy is a seriously outstanding violinist who has surrounded himself with some of the best musicians around, both from the classical world and the - chiefly Polish - jazz scene.

He also keeps an eye on the international folk scene and performed alongside Bulgarian musician Georgi Andreev, who is a master of a tear-shaped string instrument called the gadulka. They duetted on Kennedy's gorgeous composition Fallen Forest and delirious Balkan dances.

Kennedy was reunited with two former student pals and fellow violinists Pieter Daniel and Michael Guttman for Monti's Czardasz and a crowd-pleasing Nessun Dorma, the Three Tenors replaced by the Fiddlers Three.

Jazz violin virtuoso Ponty made a brief appearance in the first half but really came into his own after the interval when Kennedy duetted with him on some of the Frenchman's pioneering jazz-rock pieces from the 1970s. If I had to pick the best moment of the entire concert it would have to be Ponty's Cosmic Messenger, with Kennedy in obvious awe and admiration of his mentor, and Ponty appreciating Kennedy's thrilling, psychedelic slant on his groundbreaking work.

There was time left for a couple of surprises. Kennedy, wearing his No. 11 Agbonlahor Villa shirt, has recently been working with "a Wolves fan, a yam-yam", i.e. Robert Plant, and that probably inspired his thunderous version of Led Zep's Kashmir, although guest singer Cleveland Watkiss was almost drowned out.

Kennedy left just before half 11 on a delightfully light note, reducing his entourage to a basic jazz line-up for a swinging Stephane Grappelli-Django Reinhardt number.

It was, in our Nige's parlance, an absolutely monster night. Killer, man.

By Leon Burakowski

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