YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


He May Not Look the Part, but . . .

Virtuoso violinist Nigel Kennedy won't go changing to fit the classical mold.

November 15, 1998|KRISTIN HOHENADEL | Kristin Hohenadel is a freelance writer living in Paris

MALVERN, England — 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.

Los Angeles Times Articles