He May Not Look the Part, but . . .
Nigel Kennedy has no apologies to make. “If I get up to some antics, that’s the way I’ve always been since college days and it’s no big deal,” says the 41-year-old violinist.
Branded the “enfant terrible” and “wild boy” of classical music, Kennedy has never looked, acted or dressed the part of a virtuoso. He abandoned the tux long ago and wears his hair in spikes. He calls his violin a “fiddle” and his concerts “gigs.” Worships at the altar of the Aston Villa soccer team. Swears a lot.
He’s a soft-spoken, earnest musician one minute, wisecracking charmer the next. His style is as original as his musical genius, a fact that thrills his fans and annoys his critics.
“I’m not trying to ingratiate myself with the powers that be in classical music,” he says. “If they can’t even concentrate on the music because I’ve got some different clothes on, then that’s a shame. I’d say the ball’s in their court to listen.”
For Kennedy, the soul-searching begins and ends with the music.
“I don’t see a need to change. If I had a problem with actually playing the music and communicating the contents, then I’d think about changing--into a better musician,” he says. Love him or hate him, Kennedy insists, he is just being himself.
“You can tell the musicians who are being themselves,” he says, listing Pavarotti, James Galway, Glenn Gould. “You can simplify Glenn Gould into being some kind of eccentric who sings while he plays the piano, and not listen to the Bach or whatever. People can do that to me, but in the end when I’m on the stage, the music speaks and I know it works. It’s not big-headed, it’s from the experience of 20 years. I mean I can’t really change as a person, all I can do is deliver the music.”
On this late September afternoon, Kennedy is settled into a faded velvet sofa at the Mt. Pleasant Hotel, a few miles from his home in the Malvern Hills. He has run to the interview, and, still flushed, gulps mineral water down with his tea. It is a few days before Kennedy will embark on a U.S. tour that includes two performances in the Southland. It is also the second season of his highly publicized comeback.
Back in 1992, attacked for his “antics"--drinking escapades, rock-star girlfriends, a cocky, anti-elite onstage attitude--and nursing a playing-related neck injury, Kennedy walked away from a career as one of the world’s top violinists. And one of the best-selling. His 1989 CD of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” backed by a pop-style media blitz complete with music video, topped the 2 million mark, a record for the genre then.
He had always been regarded as a serious musician, but with the success of “Four Seasons,” he became a media sensation, making regular appearances in the tabloids and hamming it up on talk shows. His music was getting lost in the hype. While many critics maintained he was the most gifted violinist England had ever produced, the head of BBC’s classical radio station called him “the Liberace of the ‘90s.”
Kennedy responded with the announcement that he was tired of playing music by “dead guys,” and drifted into five years of self-imposed exile.
But he never stopped playing. On April 10, 1997, Kennedy voluntarily walked back into the spotlight, with an all-dead-guy concert--Bach, Bartok and Hendrix--at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Still no tux. No new haircut. No apologies.
The public, and the critics, could not wait to get a look at him. He had turned 40, become a father. Having deemed Nigel a “spotty schoolboy name,” he now went by just “Kennedy.” Giddy reviewers shared their petty disappointments--that he hadn’t traded in the signature hairstyle or dropped the affected “mockney” accent.
But they were thrilled to have their virtuoso back. They applauded his daring repertory mix: “No other violinist on Earth could manage the astonishingly stylistic transition presented here,” said one critic. Others remarked on his peerless technique, his passionately played Bartok, “his ability to surprise people musically.” The Times of London called it “a triumphant comeback.”
Kennedy called it good timing. The world had caught up with him. The Three Tenors were minting money with their inimitable brand of classical schlock; Vanessa-Mae was plugged in micro-minied; Michael Bolton was about to sing arias on the “Leno” show.
“There’s been [so many] such horrendous crossover projects which are kind of loosely described as classical music,” he says, “or else classical music being presented in some horrible way since I stopped, that they’ve actually seen that I’m not such a bad guy after all.”
It has always taken a lot of nerve to be Nigel Kennedy. At the age of 7, Kennedy was sent to the Sir Yehudi Menuhin School outside London, where his full scholarship lasted for the next decade. The youngest pupil there at first, he says he kept to himself, longing to go home, longing for a normal childhood. But at age 12, he says, he taught himself a valuable lesson.
“Having been in that school for five years, it suddenly became abundantly clear that I was the only one who could change my life quality, and I’d better get on with it,” he says, “and start enjoying something instead of feeling miserable about it. Life’s what you make it, full stop. And that was quite good to learn that, I guess.”
Menuhin sent the teenage Kennedy to the Juilliard School. The rigid, highly structured atmosphere bored him. But in the jazz clubs of Manhattan, he spent nights learning the freedoms of improvisation. He met jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, who became an important mentor. At 16, at Grappelli’s request, an unknown Kennedy joined him onstage at Carnegie Hall, making an unplanned New York debut.
His teachers warned him that playing jazz would corrupt his classical technique. But Kennedy was determined to become his own kind of musician.
“To call me a classical violinist seems to imply that you get up there, play Paganini, leave the stage and everyone says what a wonderful finger flicker you are--and that’s just not a true description of what I do,” he says.
But it took many years for Kennedy to break through. As he got older, the expectation grew that he was a successor to Menuhin, his mentor and benefactor. He made his Royal Festival Hall debut playing the Elgar Violin Concerto, a work synonymous with Menuhin, who had played it with Elgar himself.
One reviewer asked if the world needed another Menuhin. “It’s the one time I actually trusted a music reviewer, probably the last time. I thought, if I’m gonna be honest with this music I’m gonna have to do it from my own heart and not from his,” he says. “Menuhin really did put a lot of expectancy on me to actually play like him, so it took a conscious effort to shake that one off. But it felt like freedom when I finally made up my mind to do that.” He recorded his version of the Elgar in 1984, and at the age of 28, began to show the world his own inimitable brand of music. Cited by many as the definitive interpretation, it won the Gramophone record of the year. For his comeback recording, Kennedy released it once more, and reviewers praised his new depth and maturity. “It was music which was absolutely, for sure close to my heart,” he says. “And if I was gonna be comfortable coming back playing anything it would have been that work.”
Three hours from London, near the Welsh border, Malvern is Elgar country. Kennedy headed to this tranquil countryside when he left the concert stage in 1992, using the profits of “Viv 4,” as he called his best-selling CD, to buy himself a house high in the Malvern Hills. While his neck healed, he learned to play the bass and the cello. He settled down with one woman, Eve Westmore, a graphic artist who designed the album cover for “Kafka” (1996), an album of his original compositions. He worked in his own studio and jammed with friends in local pubs and churches.
These days, Kennedy wakes up at 6 a.m. with his 2-year-old son, Sark, while Westmore sleeps. “I get up first and practice with him around,” he says. “Now he’s a bit more free because he can get out of the pen, but he’s still content to sit down on the floor and play with some bricks or look at his books and just listen.”
Kennedy’s mother, a music teacher, used to put baby Nigel under the piano while she gave lessons. He met his father, an alcoholic cellist who left his mother before he was born, just twice before he died. Kennedy played to Sark in the womb and helped deliver him. Fifteen minutes after he was born, Kennedy serenaded his newborn ears with Bach.
“He kind of recognized it and gave it credence for quite a long time,” Kennedy says, “but now he prefers a little more active music.”
After his morning practice, he might go for a run in the hills around his house, have some lunch and practice another hour or two in the afternoon. He saves time for friends and soccer games. “I need a bit of repose, some peace and quiet, time away from it each day to really get into the music,” he says.
It might technically only take him a week to learn a new piece of music, but it takes longer for him to get an instinctive handle on it. “You want to live with this stuff for a bit,” he says. “I play it a lot and I play it really slowly so that I can appreciate the harmonic changes in it in a more integral way. If you’re learning a foreign language, then it’s often helpful if people speak quite slowly. Brahms is a different language from Beethoven, which is different from Bach, which is different from Stravinsky. If you do it slowly you can get to know these little intricacies which make the language their own.”
Kennedy now avoids the “transient concerto circuit” that kept him on the road 12 months a year. “What people forget is that the violinists who sounded really great, like Kreisler and even Heifetz,” he says, “they had the summer off, they had time to recharge their batteries emotionally. You can’t just give that all year round.”
He reserves time to develop other kinds of music, like his own work in progress, a concerto in suite form of seven Jimi Hendrix songs, which he will perform in L.A. with musicians he calls the Kennedy Collective.
“I’ve totally dismantled [them] and then put [them] together as one of my own compositions,” he says of the work, which will be performed with an acoustic group that includes cello, bass flute, oboe, voice, drums and whistles, bass and two guitars.
“It’s not like Jimi at all. I have not listened to him for five years ‘cause I think, like, [we] don’t need another bastard getting up and playing exactly like Jimi Hendrix,” he says. “I think he’s a really good composer, for instance, which some classical music writers like to have a bit of a snigger about in a condescending manner--particularly in England. So I’ve taken him as a composer, developing the melodic, thematic and harmonic things he’s been up to and have it come out as something based on those values.”
Kennedy has performed versions of the Hendrix piece on and off for years, to mixed reviews. “There’s a version of it with a string quartet which I no longer like,” he says. “Having these woodwind instruments in there means that the sound is less homogeneous. It’s got more of a three-dimensional aspect to it.”
Kennedy says that he is excited about performing the Hendrix in Los Angeles. “I really like that place. I’m well-seduced by it,” he says, adding that he is planning to spend a few months in L.A. this winter to finish an album based on Hendrix’s music, as well as to develop some television ideas. “It would be nice to get a different pool of talent to call upon for the album, and just see what’s going on there, get woken up.”
He’s also building in vacation time. “That L.A. is surrounded by so many beautiful natural places that within a few hours you can drive out to is wonderful,” he says. “California is brilliant. That whole West Coast, you can actually understand the lemming-like principle with which people go there.”
Last June in an evening concert in the courtyard of Hampton Court Palace outside London, Kennedy held a sold-out audience willingly in their lawnchairs through a two-hour rainstorm.
From the moment he walked onstage--already smiling--he had every person in the audience in his charismatic spell. He joked around, introduced members of the band, told some stories.
When a dog howled between the phrases of one piece, he joined the audience in a spontaneous laugh, and began again. Deeming his intonation “dubious,” he gave it another go. And then he took a vote. Conducting the orchestra himself, he performed a series of short pieces, including “Scarborough Fair,” “Flight of the Bumblebee” and Bartok’s Romanian Dances, from an upcoming album he says will be titled “Classic Kennedy.”
Blithely sheltered in plastic-bag raincoats, the audience laughed and cheered, held their breath and listened.
Kennedy says he returned to the concert stage because he missed the spontaneity of live performance--where he learns from taking risks, searching ever deeper into the music.
“Either you play with your heart and you really mean it or otherwise you play as a technical exercise to impress people [with] what a good fiddle player you are,” he says. “I’m not impressed by good fiddle players.”
And he still has problems with purist renditions of dead-guy music. “What makes it worth still playing a Beethoven or Bach concerto now is not another note-perfect rendition of it. There’s a whole world of, like, untouched-upon material in these old masterpieces which could [otherwise] be considered boring,” he says. “Isaac Stern never was content to sit there just doing note-perfect performances. I heard a recording of Lara St. John playing solo Bach, and I thought I knew everything about it, I wasn’t ready to be surprised by anybody. But this girl did some amazing things. There are surprises that get turned up every now and then and that’s what makes music stay alive.”
If anything, Kennedy’s return to the stage has reminded him of what he has always believed: the importance of trusting his own instincts. “Now I trust that philosophy a lot more,” he says. “If something’s instinctively right there’s always gonna be the right intellectual explanation for it, because, like, instinct is logic really, logic and heart.
“I think that I can be pretty certain there’s no chance of me turning into one of those very commonplace arrogant, complacent, bored-looking 45-year-old violinists. I’m really more hungry for the music than I ever was before.”
Nigel Kennedy and the Kennedy Collective, Royce Hall, UCLA. Saturday, 8 p.m. $13-$35. (310) 825-2101. Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos, Sunday, 7 p.m. $35-$50. (800) 300-4345.