Virtuoso legend Nigel Kennedy talks to David Johns about coming home to Brum, playing the music he loves, his tribute to Poland’s lost Jews and hopes for his beloved Villa – all in the back of a speeding car in Belgrade!
Whoa! Whoa! Too close, man. Is that 10 feet or what? Just back off a bit, ok? Even in the back seat of a car on a motorway from Belgrade airport to the city centre Nigel Kennedy doesn’t rest for one minute. At the age of 61, after decades in the music business, having lived a rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, you might think he’d want to ease up a bit… just a weeny bit. But, no. If anything, the virtuoso who took the violin from classical to cool works and plays harder and faster than ever.
So busy is Nigel’s schedule, I’d been trying for the best part of 18 months to set up an interview with the great man. We’d got close several times only for last-minute cancellations as he tried to keep up with playing at gigs across the world, recording in the studio and spending some quality time with his second wife Agnieszka at their home in the Polish mountains, high above Krakow.
BACH TO THE FUTURE
When I finally caught up with him, he was on his way to open the 50th anniversary of Belgrade’s classical BEMUS music festival with his performance entitled Bach Meets Kennedy Meets Gershwin. “I love playing live gigs man,” he said, rather stating the obvious. “The energy you get from an audience is something you never feel in a recording studio. When you’re in the studio, you can do it again. But at a live gig, you have to deliver. There’s no second chance. It’s the adrenaline rush you get.”
That energy was only to get more intense a few days later when Nigel returned ‘home’ to Birmingham to play at a sold-out Symphony Hall. “It’s always very special for me to play in Birmingham,” he said. “It’s my home, my roots and I am among friends – the highlight of my year. I expect there’ll be plenty of old Villa legends there, great ex-players like Tony Morley. Sadly the current squad probably won’t make it because it’s a Thursday night and they will be preparing for the next match, which is against Swansea on the Saturday.” Nigel was hopeful thathis son Sark, who lives in Malvern, would make the concert, however.
Nigel is, of course, a massive Villa fan ever since growing up in Birmingham. He began supporting the club in his early teens and famously often wears the Villa shirt while performing onstage. He keeps up with all the Villa news and gossip wherever he is in the world. “I don’t get to go to the matches anywhere near as much as I want to,” he says, “but when I do it brings out all the swear words in my vocabulary. It’s a shame what’s been going on at the club because I think they’re a good group of players.”
A few days before we talked, Villa manager Steve Bruce was sacked. Nigel said: “I always thought Bruce was an honest English manager. Sometimes I think the anger of fans is directed at the players and the manager when it should really be aimed at the people who run the club. But to be honest, I am just amazed how the fans have stuck with it and been fantastic despite everything that’s gone on.” With time short before Nigel was due on stage, I steered him away from football – he admits he’ll talk for hours about it given the chance – and onto his music.
It has been a whirlwind year, seeing him also perform huge sell-out shows in London and Manchester, as well as headlining the BBC’s Biggest Weekend events in Coventry and Perth. His gig at Symphony Hall saw him perform pieces by Bach and Gershwin, as well as his own self-penned pieces, including his recent work, The Magician of Lublin.
Inspired by the book of the same title by Isaac B Singer and set in the shtetls – mainly Jewish populated small towns – of Poland in the 1870s. Nigel’s musical interpretation is equally as vibrant as it reflects on the lost Jewish community in the Polish capital of Warsaw.
In addition, Nigel performed Fugue from Sonata No 1 by J S Bach, and a selection of pieces from the Songbook of George Gershwin including Summertime, How Long Has This Been Going On, Rhapsody In Claret and Blue and Lady Be Good.
The breadth and originality of Nigel’s precocious technique first came to mainstream prominence with his multi-million-selling interpretation of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – which is now one of the best-selling classical recordings of all time – remaining at the top of the UK Classical Albums Chart for over a year in 1989.
Unafraid to experiment and test his talent, he has since embraced several different projects including reinterpreting the works of guitar legend Jimi Hendrix. Having brought a fresh perspective to classical music by merging traditional with contemporary, Nigel has sold out the most prestigious of venues worldwide several times over.
After returning to Birmingham, he was heading to London to perform at a special anniversary at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club. This month he’s playing in Berlin and Munich in Germany and Vienna in Austria. He also revealed he will be on tour in Australia in the New Year – by which time he hopes his beloved Villa will have shot up the Championship table. A title or play-off spot would be nice at some point, he muses.
And as if to reinforce his love of not just Villa but Midlands football as a whole, he ended our interview by saying: “You know, man, my dream is for Villa and all the Midlands teams to be in the Premier League – even the Bluenoses! I know that Wolves are already there and doing well, but to get the other clubs there with them would be the shot in the arm the city and the region needs.”