Sunday, October 4, 2009

Nigel Kennedy

In all his glory.

(A piece about Nigel Kennedy I wrote two years ago)

After swearing for what seems like the 500th time that he was done with classical music forever, after swearing for what seems like the 1000th time that he will never perform on a London concert stage ever again, Kennedy, the greatest English violinist since Albert Sammons, the designated heir to both Yehudi Menuhin and Stephane Grappelli, is returning to England's pre-eminent classical venue for the first time in 21 years.

Every newspaper that does a profile on him seems aghast at the thought that he's now on the other side of 50. The idea that old-timers can pretend they're still twenty-five is still something new to the classical world. But even for me it does seem like yesterday that I was eleven years old going backstage after an electrifying performance of the Bruch Violin Concerto (that I tried ten years later to pathetically imitate as best I could) to announce to Nigel Kennedy that one day I wanted to be a violinist as good as he is. Kennedy heard my words with what seemed like something between amusement and alarm and immediately grabbed me by the forehead and shook my head back and forth until my brain was ready to fall out. And then he said the advice that I have kept with me to this day 'Just don't let'em turn you into a wankah!'

I'd like to think that I'm the only young musician to have had such a 'life-changing' encounter with Nigel Kennedy, but I would imagine that there are hundreds more stories just like it. Kennedy is the type of guy for whom the very act of meeting him becomes an event in itself. Between the punk haircut, the salvation army wardrobe, the 'mockney' accent straight out of Spinal Tap, the obsession with Aston Villa (he wears the team scarf onstage at concerts), he is a one-man anecdote machine.

Even to twenty-six year old me, Nigel Kennedy was supposed to be Peter Pan. I remember being thirteen and hearing his version of the Four Seasons (apparently I was one of 2 million people to have that experience) for the first time. It was the most exciting thing I had ever heard. I must have played the third movement of Summer five-hundred times. Vivaldi was no longer this boring composer of music that people listened to when they didn't want to listen. Vivaldi was as intense, as emotional, as 'hard-core' as Beethoven or Stravinsky.

No doubt his eccentricities have drawn serious flak on occasion. One time he appeared to play Berg's magnificently eerie violin concertowearing a black cape and Dracula makeup. In turn this prompted Radio 3's then comptroller John Drummond to blast Kennedy as a "Liberace for the 90's." No doubt there will always be people who feel that way.

And perhaps they're right. Kennedy has done his part to cheapen and coursen our musical life. After experiences with all those conductors who have bent over backwards to give him precisely what he wants, to castigate the entire profession as 'greedy egoists' is just plain embarrassing. Nobody needs to be told that conducting is a profession packed to the brim with bloodsuckers who milk orchestras for the highest buck and lowest performance standard. But for every Ozawa/Muti/Maazel of the jet-set whose aim is to piggyback off other's achievements, there is a Handley/Tennstedt/Tatewho has gone as many extra miles for Kennedy as are necessary to give the best possible performance. Indeed, in the Kennedy/Simon Rattle feudthat everybody already seems to have forgotten about, it was Kennedy who flaked out by not learning Sofia Gubaidulina's Violin Concerto, not Rattle. Rattle is now a living legend, while Kennedy is still a singularly impressive novelty act.

But who can say that music a is more boring, less meaningful activity for Kennedy's being around? No doubt about it, Kennedy can be a pill. But for everything he does that is unbelievably annoying, there are five acts of musical revelation that are so inspiring that they shake the very foundations of what we thought classical music was.

Classical music was supposed to be a civilizing force that our parents instilled in us as a way of teaching us discipline. If we could concentrate enough to practice our instruments every day, doing our homework and eating our vegetables should have been that much easier. But at least a few of us found something in classical music infinitely more valuable: it was subversive, it was dangerous, it was rebellion personified. It was rebellion against every whiny brat we knew in high school who insisted that his favorite band was comprised of artistic geniuses. It was rebellion against every bully who thought it was a joke that somebody would prefer to listen to Mozart over DMX. It was rebellion against our parents' generation, most of whom tried to tell us that no music was written before 1964. But more than anything else, listening to it was a way of taking it back. It was rebellion against the stuffed shirts who force fed it to us as kids and tried to use it as a way to make us into obedient citizens. Some of us fought back by staying with it and playing classical music with the emotion that it's no longer supposed to have.

So here's to you Kennedy. Here's to your hemming and hawing about the snobbery of our ghetto. Here's to your constant breaks from the classical world to play jazz - even if by now they're nearly as snobbish as we are. Here's to your prolonging your adolescence for another thirty years. Here's to you making passes at every pretty girl in the front row of your concerts. Here's to the all the constant provocations and tantrums and pointless feuds. We love you for every damn one of those things and we would never have you any other way.

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