Arts: To Belgrade. No strings attached

The bombing stopped and Nigel Kennedy arrived. `I'm not a political animal: I'm just here to play for my friends.' David Thomas went with him

Friday 25 June

Kennedy is late. The plane from Heathrow to Budapest is due to leave in about 15 minutes and the violinist's black trouser-suited PR Terri Robson is running out of ways to try and track him down. He got in from a concert in Las Palmas late last night and checked into the airport hotel. Although it is now about two in the afternoon, he may very well still be asleep. "Nigel doesn't do mornings," says Terri, nervously.

Finally, two bedraggled figures come scurrying towards the departure gate. One is tall and long-haired. This is Gary Falconthall, a sound-engineer, otherwise known as Dracula. His companion is shorter and stockier. He is wearing a baggy smock, a bum-bag, and a pair of grey sweat-pants that have done considerable service since their last encounter with a washing machine. His hair is shaved at the sides (the stubble is greying) and spiky on top. Nigel Kennedy has arrived.

He is in ebullient mood. Airline staff are greeted with big smiles and occasional cries of "Monster!" When the passengers in the seats in front of us lean over for a chat and an autograph, he happily obliges.

Kennedy wants to play a Peace Concert in Belgrade. It is a non-political gesture for an audience that has welcomed him warmly in the past. He has already played a benefit for Kosovo, and he sees no reason why Serbians should be punished for the actions of their political masters. "I just wanted my friends there to know that we don't hold them responsible and that someone was prepared to offer them something. All I have to offer is music."

If anything, Kennedy's more worried about the Hungarian leg of the journey. The last time he visited the country he was arrested, having tried (unsuccessfully) to smash a car through the barrier guarding the Romanian border, then walked into Romania, pissed on its soil and was surrounded by gun-toting soldiers on the way back into Hungary. He tells the story oblivious to the degree to which it confirms every possible prejudice about his lunatic behaviour. But a moment later he is describing why he wants to begin his Belgrade concert with the Bach A-minor and D-minor violin concerti: "Bach is a master of harmony and the reconciliation of different elements." He is also going to play Bruch's violin concerto: "It's such a concise recording of human emotions." As soon as the subject turns to music, he is a completely different person.

At Budapest we are met by the rotund, ebullient figure of George Milutonovic, the concert promoter. He is full of stories about life amid the Nato bombing campaign. Each night's target-list would be released over the Internet, to be read by logged-on Serbs. He kept expecting to be told that it was all a joke - a gigantic version of Candid Camera.

En route to the Serbian border, Kennedy decides to go for his daily run. We are still many hours from Belgrade, where local VIPs are waiting to welcome him. The hotel restaurant is being kept open for his late arrival. But he is the star and he wants to stop. Now. So we park by a roadside cafe, while Kennedy disappears into the farmland of southern Hungary.

"Don't be too long," Terri calls after him. Dracula sighs. "Don't say that. It's a red rag to a bull. He'll be gone for hours now." Kennedy returns as the sun is beginning to set and we start driving south again. It is dark when we reach the border-crossing, where a long line of cars, loaded down with Hungarian-bought goods and provisions await re-admission to Serbia. It takes an hour or so to get to passport control and another 90 minutes for the guards to examine our documents. We all have visas issued in London, but they mean nothing here. While George disappears to conduct negotiations, I wander in search of a lavatory.

There's one in a nearby cafe. I walk in and I am greeted by the sight of six Serbian policemen in blue military uniforms, sitting around a table. In front of them, several bottles of hard liquor are poking out of a plastic bag. They are deep into a serious, Friday-night drinking session and they glare at me like men looking for an excuse for a fight. These are Milosevic's most loyal subjects, the men he gets to do his dirty work. And they are as scary as anyone I have ever seen in my life.

Finally, we are allowed to go on our way. We arrive in Belgrade at 3.30am. Driving down the half-lit, ghostly boulevards we see the first signs of the Nato attacks. A row of normal buildings will be interrupted by some government or military facility, its facade marked by a perfectly circular, gaping hole, where the laser-guided missile entered before exploding within. There is something eery about the calculation with which the attacks were obviously made, the God-like precision with which the military planners decided whom they would destroy and whom they might graciously spare.

Saturday 26 June

Nigel's room is next door to mine. By 9am I can hear him practising. Two hours a day, he reckons, is the absolute minimum he can do and still stay in shape to play. "Three hours keeps me improving. Four hours means I can improve and learn repertoire. Once I get to five hours, it's just self-destructive."

But rehearsals don't count as practice. By 11, Nigel is at the venue, the Sava Centre - a concrete cross between the National Theatre and a multi-storey car-park - ready to work with the Belgrade Philharmonic. He's still in the same grey sweatpants in which he both travelled and ran. The musicians, meanwhile, look like any group of middle-class people, on any Saturday morning: clean jeans, pressed chinos, plaid shirts. It's impossible to reconcile them with the bullet-headed thugs at the border less than 12 hours beforehand. The juxtaposition of civilisation and insanity is, of course, entirely appropriate to a visit by Nigel Kennedy: perhaps that's why he likes Serbia so much.

Kennedy and the band begin to play the Bruch violin concerto. Within the first half-hour rings of sweat have started to appear around the armpit of his shirt. He makes his first mistake, shouts, "Hah!", spins his violin- bow in the air, catches it and bursts out laughing. Kennedy looks at the orchestra: "Is everybody still strong?" he asks. "Good. We'll finish this motherfucker. Cool."

I slip out for a guided tour of the bomb-sites of Belgrade. A few hundred yards from the concert-hall a poster proclaims, "They believe in bombs. We believe in God." Not far away is the Chinese Embassy. From a window hangs a makeshift rope, made from knotted sheets, a poignant reminder of the desperation with which the Chinese attempted to escape the bombs. About 100 metres down the road I can see a familiar red and gold sign: McDonald's. Uncle Sam feeds with one hand and he obliterates with the other.

Nigel keeps playing till mid-afternoon, sustained by cups of tea. Then he goes for another run. Then he heads for his room. Tomorrow night, after the show, he will lead a non-stop party that begins with champagne in his dressing-room, continues with a jamming-session at a downtown jazz club and ends with a gaggle of satin-clad Serbian girls spilling from his room just before his car leaves for the drive back to Belgrade. But before the show he's a good boy. And he has an early night.

Sunday 27 June

Showtime. On a wall by the stage-door to the Sava Centre there is a sign. It is the standard symbol of prohibition - a red circle with a red diagonal line slashed across it. In the middle there is a picture of a pistol: "No Guns".

The hall is packed to the rafters. Kennedy - wearing a loose black velvet jacket, baggy black pants and bright green shoes - walks on to rapturous applause and announces that he will play one solo piece of Bach, just to keep all the TV-crews and photographers happy. Then they can all fuck off - his expletive - and he'll do the rest of the show. He then tucks his violin under his chin, shrugs his shoulders and shakes his head to make himself comfortable and tosses off a breathtaking piece of playing with dismissive ease.

Two and a half hours later, he is still performing. Kennedy can bring the excitement of a rock show to a classical recital without compromising the music he plays. The "Meditation" from Massenet's opera Thais has been achingly beautiful, Vittorio Monti's "Czardas" has brought a suitably Balkan, gypsy-violinist air to proceedings and the Bruch has, as promised, covered the full emotional gamut.

In the hall, there is a mood of redemption, as though the people of Belgrade are being forgiven for the sins of Milosevic. "This has been fantastic," Kennedy tells them before he takes his first encore. "Some people see me as an animal, but I am not a political animal. I just know that friendship between people is the most important thing there is."

He leads the orchestra through a re-run of the final movement of the Bruch, but it is obvious that the audience are not going to let him go with that. So Kennedy gestures to a double-bassist in the orchestra and leads him to the front of the stage. The two men huddle as Kennedy talks the Serb through a series of chord changes, showing him finger-positions on the bass. Then he steps back, picks up the Guarneri and begins an Irish jig. The crowd, delighted, start to clap along while the bassist, a bemused, ingratiating grin plastered across his face, does his best to play along.

Kennedy picks up the pace, calling out the changes in faster and faster time. The bassist desperately tries to keep up, until, accompanied to laughter and riotous cheering, Kennedy finishes the jig with a final, triumphal swirl of the bow. "I love you," he cries. Then he plays one last number, the "Londonderry Air", repeating the tune three times, going up in octaves, until the last, soaring, keening, impossibly high note echoes around the hall and he finally leaves the stage.

Kennedy performs tonight at the RFH, London (0171-960 4242); his new album, `Classic Kennedy' is out on EMI

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