Classical Sass

updated 03/09/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/09/1992 01:00AM

Violinist Nigel Kennedy makes his mark playing Bach with brass

WHEN BRITISH CLASSICAL VIOLINIST Nigel Kennedy showed up for the BBC Symphony's 60th-anniversary concert dressed like Dracula, in a blue cape, green makeup and with a mock vampire bite on his neck, his decorous host blew a gasket. BBC exec John Drummond had invited Kennedy to perform Alban Berg's haunting Violin Concerto. "It's about death, in-nit?" said Kennedy, by way of explaining the ghoulish getup. Fumed Drummond later: "If he wants to be the Liberace of the '90s, then fine. We'll buy him a candelabra for Christmas and all go home."

It was, of course, just another of the dustups that Britain's musty classical-music establishment has come to expect from its cheeky upstart. But Kennedy, besides tweaking the old guard with his mock-Cockney accent, slob-chic dress and punk hairstyles, also happens at this moment to be the most commercially successful classical instrumentalist in the world. His 1989 rendition of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons reached No. 3 in the British pop charts and has sold an eye-opening million-plus copies around the world so far.

Kennedy, 35, has put some of his earnings into a 1920s home in Worcestershire that he shares with his American rock-musician girlfriend, Brix E. Smith, 29 (whom he happily calls "my top animalette"). Despite his commercial success, though, it still took most of his Four Seasons loot—plus a $540,000 advance for his autobiography, Always Playing—to buy his latest treasure, the 1736 Lafont Guarneri violin worth about $1 million. Says Kennedy: "It's a great fiddle."

Kennedy's personal quirks may be all his own, but his musical roots can be traced to his parents. His late father. John, played cello with the Royal Philharmonic; his mother, Scylla, taught piano. John left Scylla while she was pregnant with Nigel, who grew up a lonely only child in Brighton. His mother decided Nigel should play a stringed instrument, but "she didn't want a cello in the house to remind her that my dad had pissed off," says Nigel. "She chose a violin." By 7, he was boarding at master violinist Yehudi Menuhin's music school in Surrey, and it was there, at 14, that he heard the great jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli.

"Stephane was a great example of the freedom that can be found in music," says Kennedy. "It was his way of life that I really liked, the fact that protocol was very low down the agenda but quality of musicianship and the enjoyment of life very high."

Moving to New York City's Juilliard School of Music two years later, Kennedy studied the classics by day, then joined audiences at downtown jazz clubs by night. For money, he busked on the sidewalk on Fifth Avenue, playing Bach for passersby. "The acoustics were crap, man," he says. "But it wasn't uncommon for people to chuck $50 bills in the hat."

At 20, he married, but the union collapsed after six years, a victim of his itinerant lifestyle. By then, Kennedy had long since made his solo debut with the Royal Philharmonic and was well on his way to being famous. Then one night, while preparing to dress for a concert, he found he had left his tux behind. He rushed to a nearby clothing store, "grabbed a whole lot of black stuff" and hurried back. Kennedy's costume—outsize and informal—soon evolved into the eccentric, and before long, Mao jackets and samurai outfits were doing as much for his rebel reputation as were his prankish antics. In Vienna he taped Playgirl photos to female players' music stands; in Sydney he pinned a toy koala to the conductor's coattails. While his playing drew praise, his humor often didn't.

Kennedy can be equally unpredictable in more serious matters. Last year hardening of capillaries in his neck—caused by jamming the violin under his chin—forced him into surgery and a five-month break from performing. During his time off, he pondered his future and made a startling decision: to quit classical music, possibly within a year, and pursue his jazz and pop muses. "Miles Davis changed his style drastically three or four times in his career," says Kennedy. "I think most good artists do that."

If the switch really happens, the fiddler's critics had best not get too comfortable in his absence. Kennedy is, after all, mercurial. And he vows to keep his classical chops in shape. "I'll play classical at home," he says, "for the joy of it."

STEVE DOUGHERTY
TERRY SMITH in London

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