On the eve of his Australian tour, the controversial violinist talks about his greatest musical influences and standing up Yehudi.
Nigel Kennedy’s latest album My World is a way of saying thank you to the people who have inspired him. “As musicians we’re always sharing good vibes – hopefully good music – with our colleagues and audiences,” the violinist tells me. “But we’re all here because we’ve been inspired in earlier years by somebody else.”
Kennedy composed five works – Dedications – for the album, each piece dedicated to a different musician. “I wrote those melodies with five really important people in mind, who opened new doors of perception for me.”
Perhaps the most significant influence to whom Kennedy pays tribute is Yehudi Menuhin, to whom he dedicates the piece Solitude. Kennedy attended the Yehudi Menuhin School of Music, where he studied with the revered violinist. “He was very open minded,” Kennedy says. “He maybe wasn’t the most technically superior violinist in the world, but he could play two notes and they would have more pathos than a thousand notes by some other cat. He was a spiritual, altruistic musician and person.”
Kennedy’s memories of Menuhin are of a tolerant teacher who would encourage individuality rather than dictating a proscribed style or approach. “He was very, very encouraging of all of us to be the individuals that we were,” he says. “He was never punitive.” This proved significant for Kennedy, who was pushing boundaries even as a teenager.
“One time I missed a concert with him,” he tells me, “playing the Bach Concerto for Two Violins.” On the day of the concert, Menuhin’s wife had offered Kennedy some of the violinist’s muesli as sustenance before the show. Kennedy said, “No, thanks very much. If it’s alright with you, Yehudi, I’ll go down the pub and get a meat pie. I’m not a vegetarian – I’ll have a real meal.”
Dinner became drinks and the night escalated rather quickly. “It ended up with me being unconscious at 11 o’clock closing time and I’d missed the whole gig,” Kennedy confesses. “I’d got so drunk that I’d been buying everyone drinks in the pub – and cigars as well. Someone else had to get up and play this concerto with him.”
“I went back to Yehudi Menuhin’s school in disgrace and under a lot of duress from the professors there,” Kennedy says. Menuhin was more forgiving, however. “I got this really modest and humane postcard from Yehudi,” he says, “‘I’m so glad you had a good time on the night when we could have been playing the Bach double. Having the odd drink is OK, but I would suggest for your health that you don’t smoke cigars. All the best, as ever, Yehudi.’ He was that type of person – he’d be generous with people.”
The most important thing French violinist Stéphane Grappelli – to whom Kennedy dedicates Melody in the Wind – taught the young violinist, was how to be different from Menuhin. “There’s so many students come up exactly like their teachers,” explains Kennedy, “almost like they’ve been built on a factory line and they’re another carbon copy.”
For Kennedy, Grappelli and Menuhin were completely different role models. “Stéphane would have a good cognac before he went onstage,” he says, “and maybe a bit of some herbal remedy (but not tobacco). And Yehudi would be having muesli and some herbal tea.”
“Having two completely different role models helped me realise I’m not going to be the second Yehudi Menuhin, I’m not going to be the second Stéphane Grappelli, and however good or bad it is, I can at least be the first Nigel Kennedy.”
Grappelli’s also introduced new musical and sound-worlds to Kennedy through improvisation. “It opened up a great joyful area of music for me,” he says.
Kennedy forged a friendship with jazz guitarist Jarek Śmietana – the dedicatee of Dla Jarka – in Poland. “He was my best friend in Krakow,” Kennedy says. “He understood my writing immediately when we played it, and somehow I had an affinity with his writing.”
The pair would perform music by one or both musicians in both clubs and larger concert halls. “He was a very great kind of amigo,” Kennedy says. “He was a wonderful guitar player and one of the best band leaders I’ve ever played with, because he had no fear, no insecurities, no power complexes. Everything he played had his own fingerprint on it – his songs, beautiful harmonic progressions and wonderful melodies. He also supported the same football team as myself, so that helped.”
Gibb it is dedicated to American bluegrass violinist Mark O’Connor. “What I love about his music and manner: he’s such a humble person but he’s also got the bravery – or the bollocks – to get away from just bluegrass and country and get into his own extended forms of music. He never wastes a note, he can play as fast as anybody, he can play as melodically as anybody, but he never plays a bum note. Everything he plays is just beautifully expressive and never out of tune. Perfect coordination, brilliant player.”
It was in Australia, at the Sydney Opera House, that Kennedy met Isaac Stern, to whom he dedicates the piece Fallen Forest. Kennedy was rehearsing with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Charles Mackerras when he noticed that Stern was playing a few days later. “I thought, ‘Wow, it would be just amazing if Isaac Stern came to my concert!’ So I just slid an envelope underneath his door with four tickets for the gig and a letter saying, ‘it would be an honour if you would come to my concert, but obviously I understand you’ve very busy and won’t be able to make it.”
Stern did end up coming to the concert, however. “He was very supportive,” Kennedy says. “Afterwards he came round backstage and spent some time with me, told me one or two things, which were just so vivid and laser clear, I remember them to this day.”
“I went and played to him a fair few times in New York and he was very generous with his time,” Kennedy says. “He let me try out his Guarneri violin. He was very economic with words – he wouldn’t waste time trying to impress me as a young student. He was probably the most useful advisor I had on my own playing in classical music. The thing that I love about his interpretations was that they were just completely truthful – a real truthful probing to the heart of the music he was interpreting. Truth is a fantastic commodity to have in music – if you’re bullshitting it shows up pretty quick.”
It isn’t just in music that Kennedy values truth – he’s shown on a number of occasions that he’s not afraid to speak his mind, most recently making headlines when he referred to the UK as “fascist” following the Brexit vote. Does Kennedy think musicians and artists have a duty to speak up about such things? “I don’t think we’re any more important than anybody else,” he explains. “But if someone does ask you a question, you may as well be honest and say what you think – doesn’t matter what your standing is.”
“I’m really disappointed in my fellow countrymen, that we can’t hold out a hand to people who need it, and that the whole European subject was relegated to immigration and refugees,” he says. “You’d think any self-respecting country would hold out a helping hand. It makes me disgusted, this whole attitude. It’s like the Good Samaritan story in the Bible – has nobody learnt nothing yet?”
When Kennedy returns to Australia at the end of the month, he’ll be pairing his Dedications with The New Four Seasons, a vibrant reimagining of Vivaldi’s violin concertos, which he recorded in 2015.
“I know this Vivaldi score inside out,” says Kennedy, whose breakout recording of the Four Seasons in 1989 was listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the best-selling classical recording of all time. “I know the notes that every instrument is playing, I can play the viola or cello line at any point when I want to demonstrate something to the orchestra.”
So how has Kennedy’s approach to the concertos changed since the recording that made him famous? “I’ve been playing it for quite a long time – the best part of 20 years,” he says. “I’d say that I’ve become a better bandleader, or director of an orchestra, because I have more enjoyment of the moment now than in the past. That helps me extend a more generous hand to my fellow musicians onstage and towards audiences.”
While most classical music enthusiasts will be familiar with The Four Seasons, Kennedy’s latest rendition is something different. “I’ve brought a lot more improvisation into my interpretation now. Every time I play that work, it’s new. It’s never going to be same as the night before. Whatever type of music you’re playing, it should be new – otherwise it’s an insult to the audience.”
Kennedy’s 2015 recording – performed with his Orchestra of Life – infuses the Seasons with the contemporary sounds of electric guitar and electronic effects. With such contrasting sound worlds, I wonder if there is a tension between the music of Nigel Kennedy and the music of Vivaldi. “I think it’s more of a collaboration,” Kennedy says. “I like to think that I’m bringing more, and that there’s more spontaneity in it – but only because the structure’s really strong. With comedy or jazz or improvisation, there has to be that strong sense of structure in order for the improvisation to happen.”
“I’m able to bring more to it than I might have been able to do in the past,” he says. “I’ve written a lot more music myself, so maybe it helps me understand the structure of a composer’s music in a more evolved way. The structure of Vivaldi has to be strong but then you can give something different, which is the flesh on the bones.”
So what of Vivaldi’s music has Kennedy retained? “My last thought of the day is, since Vivaldi’s dead, it’s mainly bones, man.”
Nigel Kennedy performs Vivaldi: The New Four Seasons + Dedications at the Sydney Opera House, January 27 – 28, Hamer Hall, Melbourne January 30 – 31, Queensland Performing Arts Centre February 2, and Perth Concert Hall February 5