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O.C. MUSIC : Unorthodox Violinist Nigel Kennedy to Perform at the Center

January 22, 1992|A Classic Bad Boy and CHRIS PASLES

The bashing of British bad-boy violinist Nigel Kennedy has gotten so bad in his country's press, you'd think he had pinched the crown jewels.

In an interview with The Times of London, writer Kate Muir not only drubbed the 36-year-old upstart for his "dated" vocabulary and his "old-fashioned" wardrobe, but took time out to critique his pet pug dog as a creature "of epic ugliness."

Perhaps the coldest shot came from the influential John Drummond, head of Radio 3, Britain's network classical music radio station. If Kennedy "wants to become the Liberace of the '90s," Drummond said, "then fine, we'll buy him a candelabra for Christmas."

All this just because a guy shows up in front of an orchestra wearing a spiky punk haircut and velvet trousers?

"I think it says more about other people than it says about myself," Kennedy said in a recent phone interview after a rehearsal with the Minnesota Orchestra, with whom he'll be in concert tonight at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. He'll be featured in the Berg Violin Concerto.

"That kind of reaction to what I'm doing is inevitable," he said. "Every artist has the right to be an individual."

Some artists, however, are more individual than others. For Kennedy, this means album covers that picture him unshaven with a bandanna wrapped around his head. He's also collaborated with pop performers such as Paul McCartney, Donovan and Kate Bush. And because he played for a time in French jazz violin great Stephane Grappelli's band, Kennedy has been known to pop into local jazz clubs following concert appearances for late-night jams.

Kennedy insisted that he "just can't approach things I'm doing on someone else's terms.

"I have to do it in it in a way I believe in or it's not a fair deal to people paying money."

As for his untraditional concert garb, "I don't really think I should hear about how I should look," he said. "I don't make an effort to wear clothes I consider unnatural, to be wearing tails and such. I can't go on stage wearing clothes I think are totally ridiculous. It's like conning the music."

But conning the music is exactly what some critics are complaining about. In the Independent newspaper of London, John Michael White wrote: "I don't hear greatness in Kennedy's playing any more. I hear entrenchment in a shrinking repertory, played defensively. The show of radical behaviour is skin-deep: the playing tells a different story, and it isn't always very interesting."

But Minnesota Orchestra music director Edo de Waart, who will conduct tonight's concert, completely disagrees.

"There hasn't been any decline in his playing that I can hear," De Waart said Tuesday. "If anything, it's gotten better. He plays Berg magnificently well. He's one of the most serious artists I've ever worked with."

De Waart said that he likes Kennedy's "intensity" and considers him "a wonderful man."

"He is different," the conductor said. "But it's sad that our world is not able to accommodate that any more. Everybody has to fit a pattern. He doesn't fit a pattern. But once he stands there and plays, nobody can take offense at that."

As for the informal concert dress, De Waart claims that "if he had been wearing a Pierrot costume, I wouldn't have minded. I don't know why people get so excited."

Kennedy's image was born in the early '80s when, right before a concert, he discovered he had locked his tux in the trunk of a friend's car and had to go out on stage dressed as he was.

But in earlier published accounts, Kennedy recalled how as a kid he tore off his jacket and tie before playing concerts at the Yehudi Menuhin School "because I found it really impossible to play."

The audiences, feeling sympathy "for this kid that had to wear this sorrowful jacket," applauded. In fact, Kennedy got into trouble with a martinet teacher who began wondering why people were applauding so enthusiastically before the boy began to play.

Kennedy was born in Brighton, England, and brought up in Birmingham. His father (who left home before his son was born) had been principal cellist of the Royal Philharmonic under Sir Thomas Beecham. His mother was a piano teacher.

Considered a child prodigy, he received at age 7 the first-ever scholarship at the Menuhin School. He started as a pianist, but switched to the violin in worship of Menuhin.

When he was 16, the BBC began filming a documentary of his progress over a five-year period. The film, "Nigel, You're Coming Along Nicely," culminated in his London debut in 1977 with the Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Muti in 1977.

He then went to the Juilliard School of Music in New York (playing on the sidewalks for pocket money), but left without graduating. The concert world was calling . . .

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