To label 35-year-old British violinist Nigel Kennedy unconventional is an understatement. In the rarefied and often stodgy world of classical music, the virtuoso’s radical approach has raised more than a few eyebrows—but it has also established him as one of the world’s first-rank violinists. Backstage after a recent performance with the Toronto Symphony, a six-pack of beer in one hand and a bottle in the other, Kennedy teased everyone he met. His speech—a working-class accent waxing and waning—was littered with such Sixties jargon as “vibe” and “happening.” He addressed women as “baby,” affectionately called his conductor “monster” and, during an interview with Maclean ’s, chatted enthusiastically while urinating in a potted plant.
“This,” said Kennedy, exhibiting his irreverent sense of humor, “is what you call a piss artist.” Kennedy admirer Hugh Wolff, who conducted the symphony that evening, noted that the violinist is renowned for his “big personality.” Added the American conductor: “If you have an unusual person, people may be suspicious at first.
But if you’ve also got the goods, all sense of doubt disappears.”
It took Kennedy only a few minutes to dispel any doubt during his recent appearance at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall. When the violinist walked onto the stage, some audience members gasped. Amid the sea of musicians in formal evening attire stood Kennedy, dressed in a Chinese-style black jacket, black pants and shoes, a flowing multicolored scarf and wildly patterned socks. He had some beads woven into the long strands of hair that fell over the shaved lower half of his head. On a piece of carpet specially laid out for him, Kennedy stomped and shuffled his way through an exhilarating performance, his behavior more suited to a hoedown than a concert hall. But by the time he had finished Bruch’s Violin Concerto in G Minor, he had transformed any skeptics into believers. “He can wear anything he wants if he plays like that,” said Wolff. “Something is very persuasive about the way he communicates music.” Born in Brighton, the only child of a pianist mother and a father who played cello with the Liverpool Philharmonic and the Royal Philhar-
monic, Kennedy started his musical career early. When he was 7, his evident talent on the violin led to his acceptance at the distinguished Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey. There, Kennedy discovered jazz, a love that he embraced through the Juilliard School in New York City and that led to performances with such musicians as Stan Getz and Stephane Grappelli.
But it was classical music, specifically his 1984 recording of the Elgar Violin Concerto in B Minor with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, that set him on the road to stardom. Conductor Vernon Handley took an interest in the way Kennedy interpreted the work, which to that point, Kennedy says, “was basically only used as repertoire filler for bored violinists who
had nothing else to play." Without marketing, the album sold about 100,000 copies—a phenomenon in the classical world, where sales of 5,000 are considered respectable. From then on, Kennedy released one or two recordings almost every year—including his unorthodox interpretation of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which raised him to superstar status in 1989. After shooting to the No. 1 position in Britain’s classical music charts, it broke into the Top 20 of the pop charts. To date, it has sold more than one million copies worldwide.
Kennedy’s fresh approach, which is partly influenced by his love of improvised music, has been instrumental in dispelling some of the classical music world’s snobbish dismissal of British violinists. “When I was younger, I used to get people coming up and saying, ‘Hey man, you’ve got to be Jewish because you play the fiddle so well,’ ” said Kennedy. “And I’d come back with answers like, ‘Well, you’ve got to be English to have that good taste.’ ” But, he added, “I think there’s a lot more youngsters in Britain thinking that it’s not impossible to have a solo career with a fiddle now, which is not altogether unconnected with the fact that I’m getting gigs and making records.” With his unprecedented sales, an advance of about $600,000 for his 1991 autobiography, Always Playing, and his capacity to sell out concert halls all over Europe and North America, Kennedy has finally been able to reap the rewards of his success. He recently bought a house in the central English locality of Malvern, where Elgar was bom, which he shares with his American girlfriend, rock musician Brix Smith. And for the first time, he owns his own violin—a 1736 Lafont Guameri worth more than $1 million. He plans to release only four more classical albums. Among them is a Berg violin concerto coupled with some of the works of jazz musician Miles Davis; Kodaly and Bartók duets; a Beethoven concerto and works by his favorite violinist, Fritz Kreisler. “I’m not going to do the concerto thing anymore because I’ve done it for a long time and I think I’m doing it better than ever before,” said Kennedy. “And that’s a great time to stop.” Despite it all, Kennedy is still occasionally dogged by criticism of his appearance. But he is unapologetic about the fact that he dresses, behaves and interprets music his way. “I should think that Franz Liszt had people thinking, ‘Well, that bloke’s gone too far,’ ” said Kennedy. “But if people are getting enjoyment out of the music, that’s really all you can ask of yourself as a performer.” To Kennedy, success is a mixture of talent and being the right person for the right time. He added, with uncharacteristic understatement: “I just maybe happen to be that bloke.”
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