On a friendly mission with a pounds 1m violin

First Night Nigel Kennedy Sava Concert Hall Belgrade
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OUTSIDE THE Sava Concert Hall in the heart of Belgrade's new business district the crowd gathered to see the first concert by a Western musician since the end of Nato bombing.

It was an impressive mix: "It's the best thing they kept about socialist culture" one woman said. "Rich and poor, young and old, can all attend a music concert." Tickets cost just 90 dinars (about pounds 5).

Nigel Kennedy had to fight his way through a crowd of young girls all anxious to speak to him. Once on stage he treated the 4,000-strong audience to a performance of Bach and Bartok, the music at times reflecting the sadness of the city and the joy that so many felt at seeing him here. He joked, he swore, he took sideswipes at the media, a vintage Kennedy performance. Even before he took the stage he was given a standing ovation. He ended with an Irish jig.

The Sava hall is used to big names. Just 10 days ago President Slobodan Milosevic stood in this hall handing out medals to the generals who had returned from Kosovo. In the audience yesterday was Milan Milutinovic, President of Serbia and chief negotiator at the Rambouillet peace talks.

Earlier, during a break in rehearsals, Kennedy had held a press conference. British journalists wanted to know about politics, the war and the bombing, local reporters were more interested in his rearrangement of a Jimi Hendrix song and his support for Aston Villa.

Kennedy had come to Belgrade, he said, to be with his friends. Music was a way of bringing people together.

"There is nothing political about this visit, at some point people will find this was the right thing to do," he said. "Music is the only thing I can offer."

He has played heremany times before. The Belgrade Philharmonic would once have welcomed him as just another star, but last night his appearance was an unexpected treat for an orchestra and a city ravaged by war.

Kennedy received no fee and made the journey at his own expense, flying to Budapest and driving with his entourage from there. They had to negotiate border crossings (not helped by the loss of Kennedy's passport) and deal with customs officials' queries about their luggage which included a pounds 1m Guarneri violin.

Kennedy told his audience: "Its fantastic to be back with my friends on stage. I do believe friendship is more important than anything else in the world." He was greeted by one lone cry of "I love you" from the audience.