Nigel Kennedy on the BBC Proms

Nigel Kennedy talks to Time Out about why it has taken him 21 years to play the Proms again

  • Nigel Kennedy on the BBC Proms

    © BBC/Gary Moyes

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    ‘Nigel, is that your violin sitting over there in the sun?’ It may only be Nigel Kennedy’s second-best violin lying on a weathered garden table (his 1735 Guarneri is safely indoors), but his manger, Terri, is concerned. ‘Yeah, so what?’ the musician replies with a shrug. ‘I suppose it could be worse,’ she continues, ‘you were playing cricket with it the other day.’ Kennedy raises his eyebrows. ‘All right, don’t fuckin’ exaggerate,’ he says, before breaking into a broad, toothy grin.

    The three of us are sitting at a picnic table in the leafy shade of Kennedy’s garden in north London, not far from where Keats heard his nightingale. Though in a pink sweatshirt, shaggy brown fleece and trademark gelled-up hair, Britain’s premiere violinist probably doesn’t dress quite like his neighbours. But then, he never did conform. This is perhaps why over his long career (he is now 51) the public have continued to love him and the classical musical establishment has continued to shake its head about him.

    Contrary to the belief that he lives permanently in Poland, Kennedy and his Polish wife, Agnieszka, actually spend half of their time here and half in Krakow. One of the reasons he is spending so much time in London is because he is seeing a specialist about a broken arm, apparently the result of a cycling accident. It is his left, fingering arm. Is that the worse one to break?

    ‘I suppose they both come into it’, he says seriously, before grinning. ‘There is fuckin’ small demand for one-armed violinists in this world,’ he observes, roaring with laughter.

    Luckily, his quintet of Polish jazz musicians have gone home after a rehearsal session, as one imagines that with them around Kennedy might be a little too excitable – a bit like his dog, which has taken an unhealthy interest in me. Fortunately, Kennedy’s sister, Holly, removes the creature and we get down to business of why, when Kennedy plays at the Proms, it will be his first appearance there for 21 years. The answer is simple. ‘No one ever asked me, man… They must just have had about 2,000 better violinists to ask, I suppose,’ he says disingenuously.

    Somehow, Kennedy has managed to be Britain’s most successful violinist despite – or perhaps as a result of – his maverick sense of dress and insouciant, frank manner of speaking. Has he deliberately cultivated the image of an outsider? ‘I do prefer to think of myself as being outside the classical music industry,’ he says, adding, ‘because it has got some very strange people in it.’

    It hasn’t done his career any harm, and it is worth remembering that he preceded the vogue for crossover classical pop. This cheeky geezer was performing in sunglasses and selling millions of albums of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ while his peers were still in tuxedos and behaving impeccably. And yet, though he is mocked for his image, no one criticises his technique.

    Does he really have it in for conductors? ‘It wasn’t me who formed that attitude,’ he replies defensively. ‘When I started, as a teenager, playing with orchestras, it was all of the players who came up and said, “Don’t worry, we’re not looking at that idiot, we’re listening to you.” So it’s coming from the orchestral players; it’s not some opinion of mine.’

    On Saturday Kennedy will begin by playing Elgar’s Violin Concerto at the BBC Proms. It is a favourite of his.

    ‘He is one of the great composers,’ Kennedy asserts enthusiastically. ‘People sometimes dismiss him as being an old-fashioned romantic,
    but the structure of his music is as contemporary as any of the people around him. It is just as innovative as the 12-tone technique, the way that he alters the form architecturally, the way he alters the form of Romantic music.’

    As a contrast, Kennedy will then return in the late-night Prom to play his own compositions with his Polish jazz quintet. How will the two concerts compare? Now we are talking music again, he is serious. ‘It’s a bit more of an intellectual proposition to play jazz, I think,’ he muses.

    ‘Because you can’t play and not listen to your colleagues. Whereas classical music can be played automatically and it’s the notes of Beethoven, which are going to sound good no matter who plays them.’

    Which concert will prove the more entertaining we shall find out on Saturday. And as for Kennedy, is he looking forward to them both equally? ‘Yeah, man,’ he says, grinning broadly again. ‘It’s all English music.’

    Nigel Kennedy plays two concerts at the BBC Proms on July 19.

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