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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Nigel Kennedy - Practice makes perfect

By Norman Lebrecht / May 9, 2001

NIGEL KENNEDY came perilously close to pulling out of last night's Barbican gala concert, marking 25 years of the Gramophone awards. Kennedy had been invited to play the Elgar Violin Concerto, with which he won an award in 1985 with five times as many votes as the next-best disc. It is one of his most-loved pieces of music. He made his home in Malvern, up the road from where Elgar was born.

To conduct the concerto, Kennedy chose the august Elgarian, Vernon Handley. All seemed set for a memorable evening. Then Kennedy was told that he would have only one rehearsal, on the morning of the concert.

"The LSO are a very good orchestra," he remarks, "but, laying false modesty aside, if there's someone on the planet who knows how much you have to rehearse Elgar, it's me. I have played it enough times, and I know that you have to get it into the idiom of the orchestra and it has to settle for a day. They wouldn't rehearse Mahler just once, on the day of the concert. It's ridiculous, for music of that intricacy."

Kennedy demanded an extra rehearsal on the previous day. The LSO responded that they could not ask players to cancel their Bank Holiday plans at short notice. Kennedy erupted, threatened to pull out, then decided to scrap the concerto and play solo Bach.

"It makes me want to throw my hands up in resignation at the whole English scene," he sighs. "There is a kind of blase, laissez-faire attitude, a jobsworth attitude, where they are satisfied with being second-rate. They have forgotten what a first-rate result is. If I were playing on Boxing Day in Germany, you can be guaranteed that those musicians would turn out at 10 o'clock on Christmas morning to get the standard right."

Last November he had a similarly miserable time playing Bach with the English Chamber Orchestra. At one rehearsal, the principal cellist was unaccountably absent. "The way I play Bach," explains Kennedy, "there is a lot of discourse with single cello and bass, as opposed to the whole section. If the lead cellist's not there, how is he going to know what to do in the concert?"

These shortcomings have aggregated in his mind to the point where, once again, he is contemplating boycott. "I don't think I am going to play in London with an orchestra until I can be assured that I'm getting adequate rehearsal," declares Kennedy. "And if that's never, I won't play in London with an English orchestra. I'll have to bring one in from somewhere else."

The view from the band, needless to say, differs in tone. "Nobody told us until too late that he wanted a separate rehearsal," say the LSO, "and nobody offered to pay for it." In the past, London orchestras had a tradition of "depping", where players covered for each other in rehearsal. It has also grown unaccustomed to top-flight soloists who like to rehearse. Several stars insert lo-rehearsal or, in one instance, no-rehearsal clauses in concert contracts - leaving Kennedy sticking out, as ever, like a turnip among tulips: rough to the eye but spiritually more nutritious.

He blames conductors for fostering orchestral complacency. Sometimes, he says, "they take all the rehearsal for the symphony and shove the concerto off to the back. So you have 20 minutes to rehearse Sibelius. Either the whole concert should sound good, or it's not worth doing."

Since the death of Klaus Tennstedt, whom he adored, Kennedy has struggled to form a meaningful relationship with a music director.

His record label, EMI, paired him four years ago with Simon Rattle in Elgar, but the glow of achievement faded fast. They were due to get together on the ethereal concerto by Sofia Gubaidulina, when Kennedy cried off for treatment of a recurrent neck complaint that had prevented him from learning the piece in time. Rattle apparently took umbrage.

"He's cross with me for playing in a club when I should have been playing the concerto," shrugs Kennedy, "but I don't think it's any of his business what I'm doing." Doing jazz, Kennedy demonstrates, he holds the fiddle to the front of his chin, rather than at the troublesome side. "If Simon believed in me, and what I was saying was the truth," he grumbles, "he wouldn't have any problem with me playing a totally different violin technique with a singer-songwriter friend. But I'm not going to defend myself to him. He can do whatever the f--- he likes."

It is outbursts like these that earned Kennedy his name as the bad boy of classical music, and the standard response is to shrug the shoulders and say, "Oh, it's just Nigel going off the rails again." His cause is not helped by occasional caprice. On Sunday, two nights before the Gramophone concert, he was down to play the Elgar concerto with the Philharmonia and all the rehearsals he wanted - only for Kennedy's latest rock-industry manager to cancel at short notice, mystifyingly saying that the concert conflicted with "an upcoming pop tour, which takes priority".

Nevertheless, Kennedy's cavils at classical London must be taken seriously. He is right: too many concerts in this country are disgracefully under-prepared. Last week, for example, for the gala jubilee of the Royal Festival Hall, the conductor Valery Gergiev flew in on the morning of the concert, having left the rehearsal to a subordinate. Any thrill on the night was partly generated by section leaders sitting on the edge of their seats praying that the performance would not crash. Once musicians get used to short-measure, it becomes impossible to raise standards.

The source of the criticism must also be treated with respect. Kennedy can no longer be written off as a maverick juvenile lead. He is 44, the father of a five-year-old son, Sark, for whom he shares custody. He has taken up jogging and given up booze, settled in a steady relationship with a Polish law student, Agnieszka.

He works long and hard at his music, exploring new pieces and road-testing them with close friends in his home studio before attempting a professional rehearsal. Increasingly, he likes working with chamber orchestras. Ideally, he would like one to call his own.

But the main reason to take heed of Kennedy's qualms is that he is still the hottest draw on the classical circuit, outselling any other fiddler with his quirky charm, his Hendrix headband and his unique ability to reach the furthest seats in the gallery with the blazing urgency of his music. He plays no more than 40 concerts a year, and each is an act of communion. "You can easily beat the shit out of it by doing too much," he says.

Over the past year he has been hotly pursued by Deutsche Grammophon with a view to switching labels, but Kennedy is more conservative than he may look and has renewed his contract with EMI. He needs a conductor who will tolerate his whims and a pianist with whom he can strike sparks - perhaps a fellow outsider like Ivo Pogorelich.

The greatest risk for the ailing art is that Kennedy will grow stale and, as he has done once before, turn his back on serious music for four years in the hope of restoring core priorities. "I'm starting to remember why I did it," says Kennedy soberly. "I had been through 10 years of having to play in any conditions. I'll never stop playing classical music again, but I'll stop playing in London if I can't get the proper musical conditions."

17 November 2000: Thrilling Kennedy [review]
16 November 2000: 'Being a dad has made me better' [interview with Nigel Kennedy]

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999