Violin's "bad boy" Kennedy brings Poland to London

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Nigel Kennedy can’t be classical music’s bad boy anymore at age 53 even if he does still sport a mohawk, kick soccer balls into the audience and sprinkle the “f” word into every other sentence.

Nigel Kennedy plays during a rehearsal in the northern Spanish town of Santander June 10, 2005. REUTERS/Victor Fraile

So how about naming the British violinist, who in his early 30s recorded a version of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” that remains one of the best-selling classical recordings of all times, musical ambassador for Poland?

It’s a role he’s going to play anyway at the end of May in London, where Kennedy -- who has a somewhat studied tough-talking Englishmen’s image -- will host a musical weekend for his adopted (by marriage) country.

The native of Brighton on the south coast of England, who became a violin superstar only to veer off into the jazz and rock world, told Reuters that his upcoming Polish Weekend at the Southbank Center will celebrate a broad range of culture.

“I’ve just enjoyed so many personal and cultural things in Poland,” Kennedy, who with his Polish second wife Agnieszka, has lived most of the past nine years in Krakow, told Reuters at his other home, in north London.

“So hearing the great Polish musicians and drinking the great beer and vodka and eating the food, that’s all going to be part of this festival at the end of this month. That should be reason enough to go, without even going to a gig.”

But music there will be, and plenty of it, for what is being billed as “Nigel Kennedy’s Polish Weekend” at the Southbank Center, May 29-31, with everything from jazz to Polish breakdancing to the inevitable Chopin -- whose birth in Poland 200 years ago has triggered that standby of classical music, an anniversary.

Kennedy, who once tried to create a persona for himself using only his last name, but concedes now it was a “terrible fiasco,” does not put much store by anniversaries:

“They celebrate the two most worthless days of a composer’s life, which is his birth when he’s just a screaming baby, and when they die, and they celebrate that as well, even though they never write anything beyond the day they die.”

He’s got Chopin on the menu, though, along with something else he is truly passionate about -- soccer, in the form of a live soundtrack he’ll play for a screening of the “notorious 1973 World Cup qualifying match between England and Poland.”

Here’s what else he had to say about the late great jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli’s inspirational role in his life, why he loves jazz but still plays classical, and a really, really bad soccer kick in Leipzig (expletives deleted):

Q: So your wife is Polish, but what else draws you there?

A: “It’s also the musical thing and the cultural thing. When I moved there, which was probably eight or nine years ago, maybe more, it was geared very much toward live music, it’s a live culture. Now it’s becoming globalized like every place else so you’ve got McDonald’s and you’ve got Britney Spears.”

Q: In Britain, some of the fringe political parties made a big thing of the large number of Poles who came to work in Britain after Poland joined the European Union. Is your “Polish Weekend” meant to counteract that?

A: “There was a lot of backlash but by now people have really had a chance to see that Polish people work well and they play well. They like to do some proper level of work, not just fill in the hours. They’re living life to the fullest. That’s what I love about it.”

Q: Two of the biggest musical influences in your life were the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, whose famous school here in England gave you your first classical training, and the jazz great Grappelli, with whom you played on stage at age 16. The folks at the Juilliard School in New York, where you were studying at the time, said playing jazz would ruin you. Were they right?

A: “He was a great fiddler, charismatic, like Menuhin, who was also charismatic, but totally different disciplines and different approaches to life. That’s where I got some good feeling for improvising, from playing with him as a young guy.”

Q: You must be one of the few violinists in the world who feels equally at home playing at Britain’s mammoth Glastonbury rock festival, and at the epic BBC Proms summer classical music festival. Isn’t that almost schizophrenic?

A: “It makes life interesting, you don’t really get in a rut like that. I mean these different musical areas, and types of venues, keep things much more interesting than just doing the circuit, you know?”

Q: A friend of mine saw you kick a soccer ball into the audience during a concert in Budapest. Is that a regular feature?

A: “One time in Leipzig I’d been partying all night and I was playing with the Berlin Philharmonic and we’d been touring around and I kicked a ball and it went off the end of my boot at about like 150 miles per hour straight, not up and then down again...but straight and I could see it like a car crash in slow motion. I thought, ‘Oh (sugar) it’s going to hit some old woman and she’s going to die’...but luckily it went straight at some young cat who parried it away...and he came back afterwards and he said, ‘I’m the professional goal keeper from Leipzig football.’ From 2,000 people, I hit the right one.”

(Nigel Kennedy’s Polish Weekend is being held at the Southbank Center May 29-31; the Nigel Kennedy Quintet’s new jazz recording “Shhh!” is released this month on EMI 6 08502 2)

Editing by Paul Casciato