The Artist Formerly Known as Nigel

In the often stuffy world of classical music, a violinist who calls himself Kennedy, and who's known as much for his attitude and appearance as for his musicianship, is an agent's dream. Dismissing the usual staid conventions of the genre, Kennedy has adopted a punk persona, complete with wardrobe and spiked hair, suggesting Johnny Rotten more than Jascha Heifetz. In keeping with his rebel image, the Brighton, England, native has even started speaking with a cockney accent and has wisely dropped his first name, Nigel.

But being an iconoclast will get you only so far on the classical circuit, and for all his punk demeanor, when the lights go down Kennedy plays Brahms and Bach with both virtuosity and passion. But Kennedy refuses to be pinned down to one style of music. Case in point: He's appeared with Robert Plant and has been known to sit in at jazz clubs after playing a concert hall.

For his latest bit of cultural subversion, Kennedy appears as a guest soloist on arranger Jaz Coleman's Riders on the Storm: The Doors Concerto. The project, which won't be heard on KUHF-FM anytime soon, has been endorsed by the three living members of the classic rock band. Kennedy's violin essentially replaces Jim Morrison's vocals on the symphonic arrangements. Kennedy reportedly plays some of the guitar and organ parts on his violin, too.

True to his image, when asked about his affinity for both Brahms and Jimi Hendrix, Kennedy says, "It's all fucking great music." Such a sense of adventure has earned the violinist a large crossover following and has turned him into one of the hottest musicians on the classical circuit. He packs concert halls and even has a platinum album to his credit, a feat almost unheard of in longhair circles. Indeed, when Kennedy re-emerged in 1997 after a five-year absence, the classical music world breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Since his return, Kennedy has been almost knighted by the press. No one grumbles about his dress code and his mannerisms anymore. Even the purists agree that Kennedy's unconventionality is better than the alternative: no Kennedy at all.

The big question about a Kennedy performance is, What will he play? His concert with the Houston Symphony will likely tackle Max Bruch's First Violin Concerto. While Bruch isn't a household name, the composer's First Violin Concerto is a favorite among violinists and conductors alike. The romantic-era composition should prove to be the perfect vehicle for Kennedy to demonstrate his passion. At 43, he may still have a bit of that punk attitude, but the truth is, he has played romantic pieces with maturity since he was a young lad. A bad boy with a soft side -- talk about an agent's dream.

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Paul J. MacArthur