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Nigel Kennedy: 'I didn't want to be the Des O'Connor of the violin'

John Preston: Telegraph, 8th June 2008

(Nigel Kennedy: 'I really have to work at my confidence sometimes')

Before I met him, I suspected that there were two distinct Nigel Kennedys. Now, though, this is beginning to look like a hopeless underestimate. The first Nigel Kennedy - the blokeish joker - comes on stage at the Smetana Hall, in Prague, with his £2 million violin held aloft and wearing what appears to be a satin judo jacket. He walks down to the front of the stage. 'Ladies and gentlemen,' he says. 'It's a great honour for us to be here at the Prague Festival.' He stops. There is a long pause. '…Um, yeah,' he adds.

Then he goes through a prolonged - and pretty excruciating - bit of business with the leader of the orchestra: the two of them touch fists, clasp hands and do a variety of high- and low-fives. But when he starts to play, something extraordinary happens. As Sir Simon Rattle, who conducted Kennedy in the Elgar Violin Concerto, once said, 'To know who Nigel is, you have to listen to his playing - and look at his eyes while he's playing.'

The moment Kennedy puts his violin under his chin, he is transformed. An expression comes over his face that manages to be both agonised and blissful. As he plays Mozart's Violin Concerto No 4 - typically inserting a jazzy cadenza of his own halfway through to inflame the purists - I find myself trying to think who he reminds me of. Eventually, it comes: beneath his tufty bog-brush hair, he looks just like Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy; guileless, innocent and, in the rawness of emotion he puts into his playing, so exposed that he might almost be naked.

Yet it's not quite that simple. Periodically, the blokeish Kennedy breaks through. He lunges at the cello players, hops about and roams round the stage in his simian crouch. Later on, he will kick a football into the auditorium, wander among the audience while still playing his violin and touch fists with a 10-year-old girl. 'Cool, man,' he says to her afterwards. This should be excruciating, too - and so it is in a way. But it's less stomach-churning, less blatantly exhibitionistic, than you might think. Instead, it has its own bizarre kind of integrity: here is someone doing exactly what he wants, unfettered by convention or self-consciousness. Any desire to give Kennedy a thunderous kick up the backside when he goes in for such hamming - quite strong in my case - is tempered by admiration for his not giving a damn what anyone else thinks.

During the interval I am shown to his dressing-room. There is a strong smell of sausage rolls, and Kennedy's Guarneri violin - on which Adolf Brodsky gave the premiere of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in 1881 - lies in an open canvas case on the sofa. ' It needs to breathe,' he says. Kennedy is changing his shirt, revealing a hairy, slightly pudgy but otherwise fit-looking torso - he runs for an hour a day. However, he is, he says, feeling a bit rough. 'I hit the f---ing Pilseners last night, man. Got to be done, though, hasn't it?' Here is the blokeish Kennedy expressing himself in characteristic form, with his fake cockney accent, his incessant 'mans' and his lavish, freestyle swearing. Much has been written about Kennedy's way of speaking - about how he once used to speak in a posh voice, but took his accent down several social rungs. The result is that, at 51, he sounds like an awkward, trying-desperately-to-be-cool adolescent. Onstage, he is natural, at ease, in his element. Offstage, everything appears contrived; rather as if he has got stuck with someone else's mannerisms.

For various reasons - see above - I hadn't expected to like Kennedy. But he is open and friendly and has an engaging guffaw. He is also, when he feels like it, remarkably obliging. My flight was late arriving in Prague and Kennedy happily played a piece of unscheduled solo Bach until I arrived. (This sort of thing can have a dangerously distending effect on an interviewer's ego.)

On the other hand, he can plainly be a handful. When he was having his photograph taken for this piece, he threw a colossal tantrum and manhandled the photographer's assistant off the stage - film of this subsequently appeared on the Czech news. And a few weeks ago, he lambasted the organisers of the Classical Brits for being 'a bunch of old farts' after they refused to allow him to perform with the all-girl quartet Bond - apparently they hadn't been cleared to take part. 'When they told me I couldn't play with Bond, I thought, well, f--- them. I was very glad to go and walk my dog on Hampstead Heath and look at the beautiful rhododendrons, rather than spend the day poncing about with a lot of bankers. I didn't take it that personally; it's just some bureaucracy that people won't let go of. But if people want me to play, they have to let go of a bit of bureaucracy, otherwise they'll just see my arse disappearing into the distance.'

Next month, Kennedy will be performing at the Proms for the first time in 21 years - assuming there aren't any last-minute glitches. During the 1990s, he had a lengthy run-in with the then-director, John Drummond, who was also the controller of Radio 3. Drummond sneeringly called him 'a latterday Liberace with his ludicrous clothes and his grotesque self-invented accent'. Kennedy reckons that Drummond was jealous. 'I think he resented the fact that there were about 250 people listening to his radio station, while there were a lot of people buying my s---.'

If you want to find out why Kennedy has become the person he is, you have - not surprisingly - to go back to his childhood. His father, the lead cellist with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, abandoned his piano teacher mother when she was pregnant and went to live in Australia. As a baby, Kennedy would be put under the piano in his Moses basket while his mother was giving lessons. He grew up a painfully shy but supremely gifted child and, aged seven, was sent to the Yehudi Menuhin School, in Surrey.

'I did find it difficult,' he says, 'at least to begin with. Now I've blotted a lot of the memories out. In one sense it was a very tolerant sort of place; it didn't matter if you were Jewish or Chinese, or whatever. But it could also be very harsh. If someone played badly, they would be ridiculed by the other kids. So in that sense, it was real survival of the fittest.

(Dramatic interlude: Kennedy's tantrum while having his photograph taken for 'Seven' is captured on Czech television)
'For a long time, I resented my mum for sending me there. But, in retrospect, life must have been very difficult for her, too. You know, being a single parent, not having much money, and all that. But I wasn't really considerate enough to think of her at the time, because I was too into my own problems.' What Kennedy didn't know - at least until later - was that Menuhin himself was paying his school fees. 'Yehudi was this real altruistic role-model as far as I was concerned. Later on, though, things became a lot more difficult. He was disappointed that I wasn't going to become a Yehudi Menuhin clone, so we had a big falling-out. But then we were reconciled at the very end of his life.'

Did the other children resent him for being more talented than they were? 'I don't think I was more talented than them,' he says. And yet he went on to become a big star, and they didn't. 'Um...' He stares into his cup of tea. 'I guess there must be some factor, I don't really know what, that makes things work for somebody and not for somebody else.'

At more or less the same time as Kennedy went to the Menuhin school, his mother remarried and moved to Solihull. Then, when he was 11, he met his father. Kennedy had come to idolise him, but when they actually met, it proved a let-down. By then, John Kennedy had become an alcoholic - he died of liver failure in the mid-1980s. 'I don't suppose my father and I could ever have had a decent relationship - not under the circumstances. When I talk to my half-sisters in Australia [Kennedy's father started another family out there], they say their relationship with him wasn't that good. Not that he was a bad guy; in fact, he was quite a charismatic geezer and his fellow musicians really loved him. But in the family house he wasn't that perfect a father to my sisters. I met him again when I was about 17 or 18, but by then I'd have to drag him out of parties because he was pissed, so that was pretty weird.'

At some stage, Kennedy decided that he didn't like his upbringing. People, he reckoned, were trying to turn him into something he wasn't - namely a nicely spoken, conventional middle-class boy, when in fact he was the son of a far from well-off single mother. And so began the first of his attempts to re-invent himself. 'Once I started asserting my own identity, I couldn't see why I was being pushed in that particular direction. Because there was no benefit in it for me. Maybe it would have been good for my mum if I'd come out talking with a perfect accent, because it wouldn't have embarrassed her in front of her friends, or her clients. But none of the musicians I respected talked in some old-Etonian, silver-spoon sort of way. Quite the reverse, in fact.'

All the time, though, people kept trying to tell Kennedy how to conduct his career. When he was at the Juilliard School, in New York, and the great jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli asked Kennedy to play with him at Carnegie Hall, his teachers warned him that no classical record label would ever touch him if he did - Kennedy ignored them and went ahead, anyway.

Then, in 1989, came his Big Breakthrough. When he decided that he wanted to record Vivaldi's Four Seasons, his record company, EMI, told him he would be lucky to shift 50,000 copies. Kennedy, however, had worked out that The Four Seasons was tailor-made for a non-specialist audience. 'It had 12 tracks, each about three minutes long. So it was perfect in terms of popular culture. Basically, it was exactly what young people were used to.'

The Four Seasons went on to sell two million copies, making it the biggest-selling classical album of all time. 'In a lot of respects that was great, but it was also a double-edged sword. With business people around, you always get people wanting to cash in on a formula - and a formula is the enemy of any f---ing creative art. All of a sudden I had these people wanting the Eight Seasons and the 12 Seasons and all that. What was even weirder was that people wanted me to follow a formula that I had actually invented. So I'd get some old geezer in a striped jacket behind a desk at EMI presenting the formula as if he'd made it up and saying, "Look, my boy, this is how it's done."'

It's time for Kennedy to go back on stage. Unhurriedly, he puts down his teacup, picks up his violin and walks out to play Beethoven's Violin Concerto. It's an intensely romantic performance that reduces the audience to rapt, even tearful, silence - a silence broken only by a storm of applause when he finishes. Afterwards, most of the orchestra pile into Kennedy's dressing-room to drink beers and listen to James Brown, very loud, on his sound system. Among the people who have come to pay their respects is Josef Suk, the renowned Czech violinist. Kennedy puts his arm around Suk's shoulder. 'We f---ing got through it, didn't we? Hey man, how about you and me making music together one day? Some Bartok duets maybe?' Given that Suk is 79 years old, it is unlikely that he is used to being addressed like this, but he seems quite unfazed by Kennedy's manner and agrees that this sounds an excellent idea.

Because my flight was late and we haven't been able to talk for long, I arrange to telephone Kennedy the following evening. When I do, it is as if another Nigel Kennedy altogether answers. This time there's no swearing, no 'mans' and he is far more fluent than before. Perhaps he is just better on the end of a phone. Or perhaps everything else is just a protective screen to disguise his shyness.

After the success of The Four Seasons, Kennedy effectively took himself out of the limelight. 'Basically, I didn't want to become the Des O'Connor of the violin, so I decided to lie low for a while.' Then, in the mid-1990s, he emerged from self-imposed seclusion to announce that he didn't want to be known as Nigel Kennedy any more. In future, he would be called simply 'Kennedy'. This news was greeted with disbelief mingled with hoots of derisive laughter. Kennedy himself insisted that it had nothing to do with any identity crisis and was simply because he had never liked the name Nigel. Others, however, weren't so sure.

Now when he's asked about it, he acknowledges that the whole thing was a fiasco. 'I was inspired by the writer Iain Banks, who calls himself Iain M. Banks for his science-fiction novels. I thought it might be helpful to people if I had two different names - one for classical and one for the other stuff. But, instead, it was this total failure which just confused people, so I gave it up.'

It was also in the mid-1990s that Kennedy became a father - his then-girlfriend, Eve Westmore, gave birth to a son, Sark, who is now 11. There's a track called Father and Son on his new CD, 'A Very Nice Album', which stands out for the exceptional tenderness of his playing. I wondered how he had found being a father, having had no experience of being fathered himself.

'I think the discipline I have as a musician has enabled me to give some guidelines on discipline to my boy. And perhaps, because I didn't really have a father, I'm all the more determined to be part of his life. The one thing I would never do is find myself on the other side of the world to my kid. That, to me, is the biggest mistake my father made.'

For the past six years, Kennedy has divided his time between England - he has a house in Hampstead - and Crakow in Poland. Agnieszka, his 31-year-old wife, is Polish - they met in Malvern where she was a student. Wherever he is, though, his days follow a rigidly familiar pattern. 'Every day I pick up the violin [he practises for between four and six hours a day] and it's almost like a mantra to me. It keeps my feet on the ground and I've got my head in the sky. Playing the violin is a very tactile experience, so it's satisfying in that way, but it's also a spiritual thing. It always leads me somewhere different.'

Throughout his life, he says, he has had problems with confidence - or rather the lack of it. 'I really have to work at it sometimes. In a way, that's not a bad thing, because a complacent performer is the worst type, I think. I've become more confident now in dealing with other musicians, both leading them and being more responsible about how they're feeling when they're playing with me. But I'm never completely confident that, say, a gig is going to go all right until I've got it in the bag.'

Yet however much his confidence may fluctuate, there's a strong sense that Kennedy is happier now than he has ever been. 'I think I've become much easier to live with as a result of being married. I reckon I'm not such a bad person - more considerate, I hope. I've calmed down quite a bit at home. My music still dominates proceedings a lot, but it doesn't dominate things on a personal level. For instance, I can put down the violin at night and go out with my wife, even if it's only walking the dog. That aspect might not have been in my personality when I first met her. So I guess you could say she's made me more human.'

• 'A Very Nice Album', by the Nigel Kennedy Quintet, will be released by EMI on 16 June

• Nigel Kennedy will play Elgar's Violin Concerto and the Nigel Kennedy Quintet will perform later the same evening at the Proms, Royal Albert Hall, 19 July (020 7589 8212)