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BACH, BOB AND THAT TORY MP.

Nigel Kennedy talks to Louise Jury about his Prom tomorrow, following in Dylan's footsteps and what he remembers about takings drugs with Louise Mensch.

Friday 5th August 2011, Evening Standard.

Graham Jepson


The last time I saw Nigel Kennedy, he performed a knockout concert with the Berlin Philharmonic, then went on to an elegant reception with the orchestra before leading a drunken ceilidh in the hotel bar which ended, well, frankly, I can't remember but would hazard a guess at dawn.

But today, the 54-year-old violinist is sitting in another hotel bar with the sun well past the yardarm ordering a fruit juice medley of cranberry, grapefruit and pineapple.

As a legendary party animal whose exploits have lately besmirched the reputation of Tory MP Louise Mensch - of which more later - and left him awaiting clearance from possible cannabis charges after another hotel shindig in Bavaria, the sobriety seems almost shocking.

But it's because of the concert. It turns out that with a performance of Bach's solo violin music to give at the Royal Albert Hall tomorrow, he forswore the booze several days ago and has been imbibing "at low capacity" for weeks. He guffaws naughtily at the thought of other preparations. "What? Abstaining from sex and that?" But he says that every now and then he thinks it is good not to drink "because it proves I'm not an alcoholic. I don't drink before recording, either, because you've got to be rational in the studio."

And the concert is a big deal, an irresistible opportunity. "It's a unique thing to do - to play solo Bach in the Albert Hall," he says.

For Bach is the composer to whom he returns every day. When he wakes - possibly at 10am, rarely earlier - he likes to spend at least a couple of hours playing before doing anything else.

"It's great for your chops, it gets your fingers in order. You can't have bad co-ordination and play that music," he says. "Playing this Bach is part of some kind of devotion or dedication to getting better as a musician. My teacher was Yehudi Menuhin, and he was so important for bringing Bach to so many people at the highest-imaginable level that I feel it's almost like a duty to do this gig."

Such talk sits at odds with Nigel Kennedy's public jack-the-lad persona. And he is a lad. Come midnight Saturday, it will be all back to his place in Hampstead where the vodka, beer and what he jokingly calls the "Bavarian police materials", in honour of his late brush with the German law, will flow. Get him on the subject of football - it is hard to keep him away from it - and he rails against the "mercenary" streak in "Judas" players such as Ashley Young, who quit his beloved Aston Villa for more money elsewhere.

Yet ask him about music and he becomes a different beast from the laddish punk in khaki shorts and trainers. "It's very natural music," he explains with feeling. "Bach's very philosophical, very spiritual. And it's bare-bones music. There are no colleagues to hide behind, it's just the violin and the player and the audience."

He has clearly been imagining what tomorrow will be like. "I saw that documentary on Dylan in the Sixties and he got up in the Albert Hall and played on his own, just him and his guitar and a spotlight, and I thought, 'Fucking hell, that takes some bollocks to do that shit.'" The concert sees him back in London, which he views as one of three homes, along with Sussex, where he has a family house stretching back 70 years, and Poland, where he and Polish second wife, Agnieszka, also live.

He says he never misses Britain because he doesn't think he ever really left, though he does think we fail to support art properly. Per capita we spend less than other countries, he claims. London orchestras battle for funds and musicians earn "so much less" than in other countries. In Poland, he says the low cost of living means musicians fare more reasonably. He believes, though, that you have to work in this country for certain projects that are impossible to do abroad. In certain musical fields, he argues, the UK is so far ahead that it's not worth going anywhere else - he's talking about such people as Damon Reece from Massive Attack, who has been programming rhythm tracks for Kennedy's new album, Four Elements, due out on September 19. British orchestral players, too, are "the most adaptable of all I've worked with".

His principal concern these days is writing his own original music, as influenced by Ian Dury, Celtic traditions, James Brown and Jimi Hendrix as any classics, and often written in Sussex where his mobile works only next to the apple tree. He has just switched labels from EMI to Sony, where none of the three albums he has committed to make is classical. He moved because he got "bored" with EMI staff worrying over whether the company was to be sold. "It's like a terminal obsession they have got with themselves instead of actually doing their job."

It was, of course, when she was a young EMI press officer that Kennedy met Louise Bagshawe, now Louise Mensch, who this week admitted - in response to allegations - that it was "highly probable" she had danced drunkenly and taken drugs with the violinist in Ronnie Scott's, Birmingham, in the 1990s. She said it was the "idiotic" behaviour of youth.

Kennedy remembers her clearly. "Louise was a very bright spark in a very dull company so she's all right. They tried to get her to be a mole and tell them everything I was doing. But in the end she was telling me what was going on in EMI's head, which was far more difficult to get into because it was like a brontosaurus. It had a tiny head with a small brain and it was miles from the body."

He hasn't seen her since but says: "It's a shame she's such a killer Right-winger." And he ridicules her repudiation of her past. "I think it's stupid to be in a situation where you have to look back on having fun and think it was stupid. She was a perfectly good party-er. She had a good talent for that. So why has she had to give up on it to curry favour with other Tories?"

But the question is, did she take drugs with him? "What I've got is normally so good I wouldn't be able to remember 20 years ago," he replies. "In Birmingham you don't get sub-standard ganja, you get some of the best in the world." He imagines she did? "I really don't care," he says with a grin.

Cannabis, he says, helps after a concert, "because you've got adrenaline and everything going on". It should have been legalised a long time ago, he adds. "It's far less harmful than alcohol. Everyone says grass leads to these other things but it's more likely to because it's put in this bracket of illegal substance."

Social policy isn't really his specialty. Ask about politics and the mischievous ramble includes the left-field suggestion that Prince Charles should be Prime Minister because he is "not swayed by profit". Despite this endorsement, Kennedy calls himself a socialist.

What he is most coherent about is his musical ambitions. Future projects include a series of concerts playing Bach alongside a composer from another idiom such as Fats Waller, whom he argues is like Bach, a "brilliant harmonist". He insists such comparisons are not made to wind up the classical establishment. "I'm not taking the piss when I say BB King or Marvin Gaye are equal [to Bach]. " Gaye's role in rising above racial prejudice and bringing people together made him more important than Bach because he mattered in society, while "Bach didn't lead a great revolution of consciousness".

He would like to play more in the UK but rejected offers in the past because of what he sees as the failure to offer proper rehearsal time in Britain. Now orchestras don't ask, "which is a shame". He had not appeared at the BBC Proms for 21 years until returning in 2008, partly for that very reason. But current Proms boss Roger Wright invited him back, offered him "adequate" time to prepare for the Elgar violin concerto that year, plus the enticement of a second late-night appearance with his own rock-based Polish band. "Which other festival could offer you that type of gig?" he asks.

Kennedy will also play the Brahms violin concerto in Britain with the Royal Philharmonic next year, an orchestra he likes for the "family atmosphere" and because it really is family - Elizabeth Forbes, one of his five sisters, is its concerts director. (The Kennedy family tree is complex; in an aside, he reveals his father might have been the love child of the Irish tenor John McCormack. "But if I try to sing you wouldn't imagine there was a genetic connection.")

Performing live is much better than a recording studio, he concludes. "I could give up recording any time but playing live is when the energy goes round in the circuit. I love music and it really joins people together. The positive energy an audience brings is too often under-estimated." But not by Nigel Kennedy and certainly not tomorrow.

Seated tickets for Nigel Kennedy's late-night Prom tomorrow at the Royal Albert Hall (bbc.co.uk; 0845 401 5040) are sold out. Up to 1,300 5 standing tickets go on sale 30 minutes before the concert. The Prom is also broadcast live on Radio 3 on BBC4 on September 9.



 Terri Robson
Settled: with his Polish second wife, Agnieszka.




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