Born in 1957 in Brighton, England; son of John (principal cellist for the Royal Philharmonic) and Scylla (a piano teacher) Kennedy; married; wife's name Agnieska; children: Sark (son). Education: Attended Yehudi Menuhin School, beginning in 1964, and the Juilliard School, beginning c. 1972. Addresses: Record company--EMI Records London, 20 Manchester Square, London W1, England.
When he sets foot onstage, Nigel Kennedy raises eyebrows. In his oversized shoes and "punk" attire, Kennedy looks more the waif than the classical violin virtuoso. But when he lifts his bow, it is Kennedy's technical finesse that leaves audiences stunned, dispelling any suspicion that he is anything but a musician of the highest caliber.
Kennedy's unconventional approach to music-making is more than superficial. One of a new breed of classical musician, he has developed a highly individualized style that draws on an eclectic musical background. Inspired by jazz and rock, Kennedy's classical technique is spontaneous and enhanced by his mastery of improvisation.
Born in Brighton, England, Nigel represents a third generation of Kennedys to pursue a career in classical music. Both his grandfather and father were professional cellists--his grandfather a well-respected chamber musician, his father a member of the Royal Philharmonic. Nigel began his musical training at the age of seven when Yehudi Menuhin awarded him a scholarship to attend his highly regarded school in Surrey. It was there that Kennedy turned to the violin and developed a preference for the informal performance style that has become his trademark.
Kennedy, as quoted in the Detroit News, elaborated on this development: "I had this really rigorous teacher who used to hang out backstage to make sure my tie was on straight and that I was wearing the right jacket. Well, I had a lot of trouble wearing a jacket and tie when I performed. So I would wait until she had closed the door behind me when I walked onstage. And then, in front of the audience, I'd take the jacket off, put it on the floor, loosen my tie, play the gig, get back into the jacket and go back offstage before she could find out. That worked out fine until she noticed that the applause went on a bit too long before I played, because a lot of the audience identified with what I was doing. The whole thing was a lesson to me in two ways: first, that I could get away with it, and second, that if you showed who you were, the audience was more likely to identify with you, which is what you want anyway."
It was also at the Menuhin School that Kennedy discovered jazz. Yehudi Menuhin encouraged his interest by introducing him to the renowned jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, with whom he would later make his Carnegie Hall debut at the age of 17. "Nigel didn't really get into the classical stride until after he had liberated himself in the improvised jazz world," Menuhin noted in the New York Times. Together, Menuhin and Grappelli had great influence on the development of Kennedy's musical style. From Menuhin he gained technical assurance, and from Grappelli, a fondness for spontaneity and a sly sense of play. "Menuhin had the right spiritual approach, yoga before breakfast and all that," Kennedy contended in Harper's Bazaar, adding that "Steph likes to have a whiskey before going onstage, and then enjoy every second of playing. He had a great attitude."
After completing his studies at the Menuhin School, Kennedy became a student of Dorothy DeLay at the prestigious Juilliard School. While at Juilliard he continued to perform as a jazz musician, appearing at Greenwich Village nightclubs with such jazz greats as Stan Getz and Helen Humes.
In 1977 Kennedy made his London debut at the Royal Festival Hall, where he appeared with the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Muti. After that, his performance schedule grew to include 120 concerts worldwide each year. He appeared with major symphony orchestras in North America, Great Britain, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the Far East, and performed regularly with the National Symphony and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, which he also conducted. Kennedy has collaborated with such renowned conductors as Vladimir Ashkenazy, Neville Marriner, Antal Dorati, and Andre Previn.
Wherever he performs, Kennedy's technical virtuosity and "everyman" style rarely fail to delight audiences and critics alike. Fans are charmed by his habit of "chatting up" the audience between pieces, addressing its members fondly as "monster," "animal," and "mate." Critics are awed by his sheer artistry. A reporter for the Detroit News deemed him "easily the most refreshing, disarming, personal, intuitive, [impetuous] and unorthodox fiddler currently before the public." A Boston Globe reviewer described his playing as "technically assured, extremely musical, dashing, elegant, and sweet-toned," while a Washington Post critic assessed Kennedy as "gifted not only with an incredible pair of hands but also with a superb set of musical instincts. He is able to play not only with incredible speed, power, and accuracy ... but also with a heart-on-sleeve romanticism when the music requires it."
In addition to maintaining a rigorous performing schedule, Kennedy has recorded extensively. He has an exclusive and unprecedented contract with EMI Records that includes a rock, classical, and jazz repertoire.
Kennedy's rock recordings include collaborations with Paul McCartney, Talk Talk, and Kate Bush, on her album The Sensual World and on her single "Experiment IV" from the album The Whole Story. He also composed his own progressive rock album Let Loose with keyboardist Dave Heath. "Writing rock music really helps me," Kennedy maintained in Vogue. "Being involved in compositional techniques yourself makes you appreciate the techniques of the classical composers."
Judging from the critical acclaim his classical recordings have received, Kennedy does indeed appreciate those techniques. His rendition of the Elgar Violin Concerto, recorded with the London Philharmonic, was named best classical recording at the British Record Industry Awards ceremony and was honored as record of the year by Gramophone in 1985.
Kennedy then recorded Bartok's Sonata for Solo Violin along with "Mainly Black"--an interpretation of Duke Ellington's orchestral suite "Black, Brown and Beige"--two pieces that were also included on his Strad Jazz album. The inspired pairing of these two 1940s classics was hailed by critics for its innovation.
A high point of Kennedy's career came with his recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, released by EMI 1989. It became the most popular classical album of all time, selling more than two million copies. After he appeared at a recital dressed like a rock star, complete with white face paint and fake blood dribbling out of his mouth, some critics said that the success had gone to his head. And, in 1992, in true rock star form, he trashed a luxury hotel suite where he was staying in Berlin, causing thousands of dollars of damage by smashing champagne bottles against the walls and destroying furniture.
By mid-1992 Kennedy had decided to form his own string quartet and concentrate chiefly on music in the rock and jazz arenas rather than classical. "Others might see it as a giant leap, but I don't," he explained in Entertainment Weekly. "If the true test of classical music is being remembered, [rock artists Jimi] Hendrix and Led Zeppelin are the classical artists of their age." In 1996, he released Kafka, which includes his own compositions. He followed this in 1999 with The Kennedy Experience, a tribute to Jimi Hendrix's band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Kennedy stayed out of the classical arena for five years, finally making a much heralded comeback at London's Royal Festival Hall in April 1997. Particularly in his native Britain, Kennedy was greeted with ovations from audiences and critics alike; the British newspapers gave him front-page coverage, on an equal footing with news of the run-up to the British General Election.
Soon Kennedy was back on the international classical music circuit. He also returned to the studio to record classical music, including EMI's Classic Kennedy, in 1999. This album proved that Kennedy was as popular as ever, landing at the top of the UK classical music charts. In 2000, Kennedy won an award for Outstanding Contribution to British Music at the BRIT Awards, and the following year, he won a BRIT Award for Male Artist of the Year. The year 2001 also saw the release of Kennedy Plays Bach. He continued to record classical albums into the 2000s, including a much-anticipated new recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, with the Berlin Philharmonic.
Kennedy has said that simply to play music for an appreciative audience is his greatest wish for his continuing career. He told a correspondent for the Baltimore Evening Sun, as reprinted in the Oakland Press, "I'm pleased to have a career now because it means I can buy a violin and live in a place with more than one room. But you can't take the music for granted.... The best audience I played for was in a pub in Dublin, elbow to elbow with people and mugs of Guinness. I was playing with a local violinist and the audience was so quiet that you really could've heard a pin drop. That's what I'm after. As long as I get that, the career doesn't matter."
by Nina Goldstein and Michael Belfiore
Nigel Kennedy's Career
Classical, jazz, and rock violinist. Made London debut with Philharmonia Orchestra, 1977; launched recording career with Elgar Violin Concerto, 1984; conductor of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra; appeared with major symphony orchestras in North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the Far East, 1980s-2000s; released best-selling classical album of all time, Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, 1989; published Always Playing (autobiography), St. Martin's Press, 1992; released numerous albums through the 1990s and 2000s; won recognition for Outstanding Contribution to British Music at the BRIT Awards, 2000, and as Male Artist of the Year at the BRIT Awards, 2001; released Kennedy Plays Bach, 2001; released rerecording of The Four Seasons, 2004.
Nigel Kennedy's Awards
British Record Industry Awards, Best Classical recording and Record of the Year, 1985; British Phonographic Industry BRIT Awards for Outstanding Contribution to British Music, 2000, and Male Artist of the Year, 2001.
- Selected discography
- Classical releases
- (Elgar, Sir Edward William) Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61 Angel/EMI, 1984.
- (Mendelssohn, Felix and Max Bruch) Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 (Mendelssohn); Violin Concerto in G minor, Op. 26 (Bruch), Angel/EMI, 1986.
- (Bartok, Bela and Duke Ellington) Sonata for Solo Violin (Bartok); Mainly Black (Ellington), Angel/EMI, 1986.
- (Sibelius, Jean) Violin Concerto, Symphony No. 5 Angel/EMI, 1986.
- (Walton, Sir William Turner) Violin Concerto, Viola Concerto Angel/EMI, 1987.
- (Vivaldi, Antonio) The Four Seasons Angel/EMI, 1989.
- Just Listen EMI, 1992.
- Classic Kennedy EMI, 1999.
- (Bach, Johann Sebastian) Kennedy Plays Bach EMI Classics, 2001.
- (Vivaldi, Antonio) Four Seasons EMI Classics, 2004.
- Non-classical releases
- Nigel Kennedy: Let Loose EMI.
- Nigel Kennedy Plays Jazz Chandos, 1990.
- Once Upon a Long Ago EMI.
- Strad Jazz Chandos.
- Kafka Angel, 1996.
- The Kennedy Experience Sony, 1999.
- Plays Jazz Chandos, 2000.
- Nigel Kennedy's Greatest Hits EMI, 2002.
- East Meets East EMI, 2003.
- Kennedy, Nigel, Always Playing (autobiography), St. Martin's, 1992.
- Boston Globe, August 6, 1985.
- Detroit News, April 11, 1991; April 19, 1991.
- Entertainment Weekly, June 26, 1992.
- Harper's Bazaar, February 1990.
- Guardian, December 23, 1992; April 11, 1997, p. 2
- New York Times, April 12, 1992.
- Oakland Press (Pontiac, MI), April 19, 1991.
- People, March 9, 1992.
- Stereo Review, October 1985; January 1986.
- Times (London), October 15, 1992.
- Vogue, November 1987.
- Washington Post, March 2, 1988.
- Washington Times, March 3, 1988.
- "Kennedy," EMI Classics, http://www.emiclassics.com/artists/biogs/kennb.html (January 22, 2004).
- "Nigel Kennedy," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (January 22, 2004).