The classical music pop star: Nigel Kennedy at 60 | Music | DW | 28.12.2016
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The classical music pop star: Nigel Kennedy at 60

The iconoclastic violinist is famous for having shaken up the classical music scene. Never looking back, he cherishes the moment now more than ever before.

Peppering his performances with profanity and pranks, he takes musical excursions into jazz and pop. With his trademark graying stubble, Cherokee haircut and football garb, he cultivates the image of a rebel. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was a fresh image. In the 21st century, the effect is still authentic.

Nigel Kennedy was born on December 28, 1956 in the southern English seaside city of Brighton. His father and grandfather were classical cellists, his mother and grandmother pianists. At age seven, he won a scholarship to the Yehudi Menuhin School for musically gifted children and was the famous violinist's youngest and most famous protoge.

"Menuhin was like a father to me and taught me a lot," he said in a 2010 interview with Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper (SZ). "Some of it I had to unlearn - which is completely normal in a father-son relationship."

Nigel Kennedy (Getty Images/E. Auerbach)

Kennedy was the youngest recipient of a scholarship to the Menuhin School

Probably the most important thing he learned from Menuhin was an open-minded attitude toward music. At age 16, Kennedy entered the famous but arch-conservative Julliard School in New York and studied under violinist Dorothy DeLay.

During his time there he announced that he would perform with the jazz violinist Stephane Grapelli despite being told that this could ruin his chances for a record contract. He reacted with what has become his life-long motto: "If somebody tells me what to do, I just do the opposite."

Always the outsider

His first record release, a performance of the Cello Concerto by British composer Edward Elgar, was declared Best Classical Album of the Year by Gramophone magazine. Four years later came Kennedy's rendition of Antonio Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." Selling over three million copies, it earned a slot in the Guinness Book of Records as the best-selling classical recording of all times. In 2015 a new version was released, with Kennedy still faithfully playing Vivaldi's notes but joined by guests on jazz trumpet, electric guitar and other instruments. The result, wrote The Guardian, sounded "like a huge jam session from the interior of a painting by Botticelli."

It's not only stunts like these that have made Nigel Kennedy famous; he's also appeared on top-selling recordings with solo concertos by Bach, Beethoven, Berg, Brahms, Bruch, Mendelssohn, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and Walton - and on live recordings of chamber music and recitals.

Nigel Kennedy Jazzfest Bonn (DW/R. Quesada)

Celebrating the sloppy look at the Jazzfest Bonn 2015

In 1992 the artist, who for a time went only by the name of "Kennedy," announced the end of his career in classical music. "An artist must change. Elsewise, he dies" was the statement released by his agent.

Was it because of the classical rituals he so hated? "I can't understand why at a concert, which is all about communication, everybody puts on a different face," he said. In conversation with The Guardian, he ridiculed the conductor's profession: "I don't think the audience give a sh-- about the conductor. I mean, they just wave their arms out of time, and from the audience's perspective, all you see of them is their asses. Who cares?"

Classical to crossover - and back again

For a while, Kennedy plunged into everything that wasn't classical, venting his passion for jazz in "The Blue Note Sessions" joined by jazz greats Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette. In 2009 "A Very Nice Album" appeared with The Nigel Kennedy Quintet, the violinist joined by four musicians from the Polish jazz scene.

The artist has never been fond of the word crossover however: "To me, crossover means somebody rooting around in sh-- that's not his own and which he doesn't know a thing about. The stuff that record labels call crossover makes me want to run for the nearest toilet."

Kennedy's classical farewell turned out not to be final. Following in the footsteps of his onetime mentor Yehudi Menuhin he was named artistic director of the Polish Chamber Orchestra in 2002. In 2010 he founded the Orchestra of Life, joined by mostly Polish musicians.

Wisdom of old age

PROMOBILD NIGEL KENNEDY (Rankin licensed to EMI Classics)

Nigel Kennedy: a master at marketing too

Can a 60-year old still play enfant terrible of the classical music scene? That scene is, or at least pretends to be, much less elitist than it was three decades ago. Evening garb at concerts is more relaxed nowadays, and the most successful stars are sexy, accessible and somehow all a bit unconventional themselves. Mannerisms aside, Nigel Kennedys playing alone has kept him on the agenda. His recently released album "My World" includes original compositions filled with Indian, klezmer and rock influences.

"Playing music makes me happier than ever before," he explained to the German daily newspaper Die Welt in 2011. "When I was young, I was always thinking about yesterday or today. Now, the only thing I care about is the moment. Especially in concert. Those are magical moments that come once and never return."

Has the artist grown wise with the years? How does he feel about growing older?

"No idea. It hasn't happend to me yet."

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