String to his bow

ICONIC violinist Nigel Kennedy will join the Cork Symphony Orchestra to perform one of his favourite concertos on Friday.

Tickets sold out two months in advance, but some remain available for a performance in Limerick on Thursday.

As a shy child, Kennedy sat in a basket under the piano at which his mother taught. He attended the Yehudi Menuhin School of Music in Surrey. Menuhin secretly paid for Kennedy’s tuition. Kennedy was playing Fats Waller tunes by ear on the piano at 10 years old, and at 13 Kennedy first met Stéphane Grappelli, the ‘godfather of jazz violin’, who was visiting the school.

Kennedy duetted with Grappelli at the end of the visit and went on to perform with him around the UK, including at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club and on Michael Parkinson’s television show.

Still in his early teens, he continue his classical studies at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. At 16, he was invited by Grappelli to perform with him at Carnegie Hall, and defied warnings from his teachers at Juilliard that he would forfeit a classical career if he agreed. He was recording his first classical album two years later. His early recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, with the English Chamber Orchestra, made when he was 23, has sold 2m and remains one of the top-selling classical albums.

Now in his 50s, Kennedy has challenged expectations, making a parallel career in jazz and exploring rock and traditional music while turning classical performance practice inside out. Kennedy buried the shy child and created a larger-than life geezer persona that allows him the confidence and freedom to tease music from the depths of emotion night after night. In interview, he is the same overwhelming character as the one who bounds and chatters around the stage — his ‘mockney’ language is seasoned with expletives, yet he is open and honest and eager to please.

Kennedy remembers his visit to Cork in 2007 to perform at City Hall. “I remember the great spirit of the orchestra and the hall with a beautiful acoustic,” he says. “I love these old buildings whose architects, without the benefit of killer technology, made places that sound great. Half the halls they build these days have to be ripped apart loads of times to get it right. Cork Symphony Orchestra is kind of semi-professional. There are some professional musicians in it, but, anyway, I reckon there are various sports that were much better when they were amateur.” Kennedy is a lifelong Aston Villa fan and references to sport abound.

“It’s beautiful that people are dedicated to the classical genre, you get a cross section of ages and backgrounds who all love it. They’re really committed and they really know the music. There’s freshness and appreciation and a real lack of complacency,” he says. !

Kennedy will bring with him a new violin. “I’ve now moved to a Stradivarius so that’s what I’ll be bringing with me to Limerick and Cork. The Guarnierius I’d been playing quite a long time, and I’d reached what I could do with it. This Strad had been played by the great German violinist Wolfgang Schneideham. He must’ve been German with a name like that. He recorded this Brahms concerto with it actually, and loads of the great concertos for Deutsche Gramophone in the ’60s,” he says.

The violin was made in Cremona in 1704 and recently spent several years in the care of fellow superstar Julian Rachlin, who loved it. “It’s given me another dimension,” Kennedy says. “The thing is, man, it’s got to be heard above about 50 other string players, so it’s got to have a special quality and be penetrating at the same time. I’m not saying this fiddle is any better than the last one, but it’s given me some new tonal variety.

“I’ve only been using it about a week, so it’s still very new. I’m really looking forward to playing it with an orchestra for the first time, it’s very exciting. It has a very sensitive touch and Strads have this refined sound, which is good as I’m a bit of a brute when I play,” he says.

Kennedy raised eyebrows during his last visit to Cork for the extreme care he afforded his violin. He travelled with a second instrument that he used in rehearsals, not taking out the prized Guarnerius until the performance. “They’re very sensitive to humidity and temperature change, they can all crack up or split,” he says. “I travel around with dehumidifiers and stuff to make the climate right in the hotel or wherever I am. You’ve got to hand on the fiddle to the next generation in the same condition you got it in. Even if you own it you’re a glorified custodian put into that position by capitalism. And people are paying for their tickets, I’ve got to play as well as I can.”

Kennedy has famously socialist political views, but is slow to be drawn into political conversation. “You can only do what you believe in,” he says. “I don’t believe that being a musician gives you any special qualification to talk about other stuff. When famous people talk politics and that, you get two distorted situations. Either they get slagged off or they are over-respected. But we’ve had amazing lack of fortune. Speculators have exploited our countries and everyone is paying for their greed. Taxpayers’ infrastructure and resources are being sold off and privatised to pay for the damage, making the situation even worse.”

Kennedy relishes returning to Irish audiences. “The Irish people really understand violin, it’s part of families, part of folklore, part of people’s lives in a way that in England is not the same. England’s great in terms of contemporary computer-generated music, but whether there’s an instrument in the homes, I’d say for the vast majority, no. In England, it’s something you’ve got to pay for.”

Kennedy lives in Krakow in Poland with his second wife, Agnieszka. While Agnieszka is Polish, it was the city’s rich musical culture and thriving jazz scene that hooked him. His own jazz quintet, in which he plays electric violin, is the core of his musical life, while he also plays as often as possible with a giddyingly good klezmer trio, Kroke Band.

Kennedy is also a connoisseur of Irish traditional music. “I hope I get the chance to get to a couple of sessions after the concerts. One of my favourite fiddle players, Seán Smith, lives in Galway. Yeah, I hope I get to hear him,” he says. Smith plays with the hugely successful group Lúnasa. “When he plays a note it’s just so incisive, with a perfect clarity, and he’s got that quality where you never have to think, ‘Oh shit, what’s this about?’. He’s really great. Maybe I can get him to Limerick and we can have a session, which would mean I’ll end up in a very interesting frame of mind in Cork”.

* The Irish Examiner is media partner for Nigel Kennedy's concerts at University of Limerick Concert Hall on Thursday and Cork City Hall on Friday.

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