Punk rebel with a classical cause
By Noam Ben-Zeev
When the lights went down at the "Tombs of the Kings" archaeological site, on East Jerusalem's Salah a-Din Street last Sunday, the starry sky and a crescent moon briefly illuminated the vast crowd. Five musicians and a sound technician took to the enormous, equipment-packed stage of the Yabous Productions Jerusalem Festival. Violinist Nigel Kennedy introduced them as "Robert de Niro, Andre Agassi, Dracula, Sean Penn and my second wife," before announcing their distinctly Polish real names. After a short pronouncement of solidarity with a Palestinian audience that included many Israelis, he raised an electric violin.
The first notes of jazz, which emerged from an instrument consisting of little more than a metal frame with strings, promised two hours of tremendous pleasure for the crowd. Eight hours earlier and a short distance away from the concert, on the balcony of his room at the American Colony Hotel, Kennedy described his Polish friends, "I went to clubs in Krakow, where I have lived for the past seven years. I listened to the musicians and chose the best. This is no easy feat because the jazz musicians there are wonderful. We started with traditional jazz: Kenny Burrell, Wayne Shorter, things like that, and finally we got to my pieces.
"My life in Krakow is very rich when it comes to music," he continued. "I perform in the Polish Chamber Orchestra, which to me is a pleasure because it's not like in England where someone always looks at his fucking watch and says, 'Shit, there's a break now.' Here [in Krakow], they stop only when the music is finished. I also play with a Klezmer trio, Trio Kroke. Kroke is the Yiddish word for Krakow. We play everything, from Jewish music to Balkan music. In Krakow, you can find all kinds of music, from highland-techno to rap, a growing trend in Poland now, which is pretty understandable given the poverty and the hopelessness in certain parts of the country."
Were you always into jazz?
"Since I was 12," Kennedy answers, invoking two legendary classical and jazz violinists who influenced him. "I studied under Stephane Grappelli, with whom I met on a weekly basis at the time when I studied under Yehudi Menuhin. Menuhin's wife made sure his hair was combed and always offered me muesli. Grappelli and I wandered around the antiques market, and he always wanted to have a double pint. They were also good friends, despite all the differences between them, and they played a lot together." Didn't that confuse you? "On the contrary, it enriched me. Everyone always says, 'one teacher - one way.' When you study with one teacher whom you respect and admire, you are certain that his way is the only right way and you get stuck there. Two teachers open up endless possibilities. "Anyway, I grew up in South London. There were Christians and Muslims and Jews, people from all over the world: the Balkans, India. As a boy, when I had no idea about religion, I nevertheless understood that there were many types of people with different beliefs, that there are many religions and that you have to respect all of them because they are all valid. That's what made me have diverse interests, and not be single-minded."
How did you get to Poland?
"My wife brought me there. She's Polish. I met her in England, in Malvern, the most boring city in the world, at the most boring party they ever threw there. She took me to Krakow, seven years ago. When I saw that beautiful city, its culture, the incredible music you hear all the time, I said, 'Hey, man, that's where I want to make my home." Nigel Kennedy made his first appearance on the classical music scene in the early 1980s. Although he won the 1985 Gramophone award for a recording of the Elgar Violin Concerto, he was considered as eccentric by the classical world. Most of them rejected him because of his punk image and manners that contradict their norms.
Many at New York's Juilliard School, where Kennedy was a student of acclaimed violin teacher Dorothy DeLay, predicted he would fail his studies because he ignored the institution's orders that he not play jazz with Stephane Grappelli in Carnegie Hall.
"I stood backstage with a bottle of whiskey," he once said in an interview, "and I didn't know what to do. Then I said, 'Hell, I'm not willing to live my life regretting that I didn't play with Grappelli in Carnegie Hall.' So I went on stage and did it."
The classical world attacked Kennedy for his 1989 release of a recording of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," which became an all-time bestseller that made it to the hit parades in every musical category. He was also criticized for refusing to play with English orchestras because of what he called their lack of professionalism: Critics mocked him and slammed his performances.
"It happened because I opened the doors to a private club. That was the problem," he says. "Proponents of classical music saw all kinds of undesirable types from the street entering their private club, commoners who are not part of the nobility. It's like English tennis. When they invented the game, they created bizarre rules, like points that jump from 15 to 30, and terms like 'love' for zero and 'deuce' when the score is tied, just so the servants won't understand the game and join in. Wimbledon, the aristocracy and all that phoniness - I really hate it. The realization of any capitalist's dream means the destruction of the lives of 10 anonymous people, somewhere in the world. Not that I am better than others: I'm sure that the vest I am wearing now was made in China - but I choose to fight this system." Since then, Kennedy recorded a CD inspired by Jimi Hendrix, a concerto to music by "The Doors," and jazz produced by the prestigious New York "Blue Note" label, in addition to classic violin repertoire: Beethoven's Concerto, Brahms, Sibelius and Tchaikovsky.
He has also performed all over the world. Orchestras and festivals in Israel have attempted to book you for a long time, without success, and now you have come to perform in East Jerusalem. "It's no coincidence.
I became aware of the Palestinian story while I was a student in New York. My girlfriend then was Palestinian, and, through her, I began to familiarize myself with and understand the problem even before the [separation] wall and the other atrocities. She had to return home every year or she would lose her citizenship, and, like it was for all of us students, that wasn't exactly her thing. Then I understood that it was simply a way to harass the Palestinians and prevent them from studying. "And today, I was really shocked when I saw the wall here. It's a new type of apartheid, barbaric behavior. How can you impose collective punishment and divide people from one another? We are all residents of the same planet. I would think that the world learned something from South Africa. And the world should boycott a nation that didn't learn. That's why I won't perform in your country. "The concert tonight is very emotional," he adds, "because I am performing for people who are imprisoned, to give them two hours of fun and show them that the world has not forgotten about them."
The technique of classical music pervaded every note, musical phrase, embellishment and improvisation Kennedy produced on his violin throughout the concert, regardless of all the folklore and jazz he played, and all the technical effects.
Do you still record classic repertoire?
"Yes. I recently released two CDs with the Polish Chamber Orchestra: One of concertos by forgotten Polish composers of the Romantic era, and one with concertos by Mozart and Beethoven, with my own cadenza, on electric violin. "I had a mental block when it came to Mozart's music. Only now am I playing it for the first time since I was 17," he says. "Back then, I tried playing my own cadenza and ended on the wrong key. So I simply threw away the music and didn't play it anymore. I didn't like the authentic performances on ancient instruments, the New York-style with all its vibrato and enormity. In any case, Mozart's operas and works for piano are so much greater than his concertos for violin. It took me some time to understand what to do with it."
At the end of two hours, the crowd rose to its feet, and Kennedy asked, "Want another one for the road, before we go drink something?" He finished with a folkloric piece and sent the joyous audience off into the chilly Jerusalem night.