I’m taking my youngest to hear Mr Kennedy in a few weeks time. She finds classical music ‘boring’. See what she thinks of Nige… This article was first published back in 2004.
A free man
Nigel Kennedy recently had his palm read by a Japanese mate of his. The verdict? “I can’t read anything after the age of thirty-six. You’re a free man.”
It’s a highly satisfactory state of being for the virtuoso violinist who has fought the confines of classical music throughout his career. Ten years ago, in 1992, Kennedy decided to withdraw completely from the concert circuit, disappearing for five years into Darkest Central Europe to explore klezmer, Jimi Hendrix and Bartok. News of his comeback in April 1997, under the name Kennedy – just Kennedy, no Nige – made front-page news, upstaging the UK General Election. Since then he has released five CDs, toured extensively and was named Male Artist of the Year at the UK Brit Awards in 2001. Next week he returns to Australia to perform Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
Vivaldi? The Four Seasons? Isn’t that the piece which made him a household name back in the ‘80s?
The very same. His 1989 recording of Vivaldi’s four concertos sold more than a million copies, earning him a place in the Guiness Book of Records as the most popular classical artist ever. But Nigel Kennedy – his first name seems to be back into vogue – makes no apologies for treading the same ground.
“I guess the choice of orchestra makes a huge difference between recordings,” he says. “The Berlin Philharmonic are the best orchestra in the world. They’ve all got amazing quality instruments and they come off the back of fourteen, fifteen gigs… so it’s a fairly live sounding album.”
He has also dispensed with the conductor, preferring to direct the band himself.
“It’s more like chamber music – you get a quicker response. …I really prefer if possible to play without a conductor because I just find it’s another barrier between me and the players in the orchestra if you’ve got someone waving a stick about.”
EMI, who have represented Kennedy since his debut in 1977, have withdrawn the previous version of The Four Seasons, giving fuel to the Kennedy critics – and there are many, for Kennedy has a gift for needling establishment – who may say he is cashing in on previous successes. However, this latest recording is part of a larger project to explore the huge body of work by Vivaldi which remains largely ignored, and is backed by EMI, the Berlin Phil and a team of musicological experts.
It’s a serious endeavour, underlining how Kennedy has matured as an artist. The CD’s front cover is still classic Kennedy – ‘in yer face’ typeface, leather jacket and stubble, with not a violin, still less any music, in sight – but the music is as committed, painstaking and exhilarating as ever. And in conversation with the artist, who has been performing and recording now for some twenty-five years, Kennedy emerges as a man who has shed much of the attitude which so irritated his earlier critics.
For a start, he’s a family man, now. His young son and wife will be accompanying him on tour, and he’s looking forward to doing the sharks and kangaroos thing, “with chips, please!”. But more importantly, his blistering talent, which he continues to nurture with “really hard work” has earned this music industry phenomenon his freedom. The child prodigy who shared a stage with Yehudi Menuhin and Stefan Grapelli before he was old enough to drive is so bankable that he can do pretty much what he likes.
“How can you say you want to play Tchaikovsky in eight years time? You might hate him by then,” says Kennedy, referring to the common practice, in the classical music industry, of booking star turns up to ten years in advance. “It’s not so great for the creative musician.”
Kennedy doesn’t claim to be intentionally out to break boundaries. He’s just doing what he does, “playing the stuff the best I can”. It just happens that “the stuff” could be a Jimi Hendrix ‘concerto’, or Kennedy playing with a Polish jazz/folk combo, Kroke, or solo Bach or Elgar’s Violin Concerto.
One thing he does insist upon is a commitment from his colleagues equal to his own. He nearly pulled out of a live performance for the Brits Music Awards in the UK, because the London Philharmonic, who were to accompany him in the Elgar Concerto, were not available to rehearse. He decided to play unaccompanied Bach instead. And after a few messy arguments with conductors and managements he has be quoted as saying that he may never play with UK ensembles again. He lives in Poland, and has a huge following in Germany.
As for Sydney, he’s got no concerns. “They’re a fucking great orchestra! We will do some damage.” Kennedy will be directing the orchestra, and sharing the solos with Michael Dauth (violin) and Catherine Hewgill (cello). As he says, “I like to get involved. It’s nice if it’s more than just some transient face in front.”
It is obvious that Kennedy is much more than just some transient face. Love him or hate him, this foul-mouthed, sweet-toned fiddle player is here to stay.