Hey, Monster!

My piece about Nigel Kennedy is in The Independent today. I removed most of the four-letter words – it freed up some space! 

And now, here is what happened when I met him in Berlin a couple of weeks ago…

Sunday 4pm. Land at Berlin Tegel airport in blazing hot sunshine. I’m travelling with Nigel’s manager, Terri Robson, who fills me in on a few crucial details. Taxi to centre of Berlin, gazing around at the snazzy modern builds – were they there last time I hit Berlin, six years ago? I don’t think so. This city encompasses nearly all of the crucial world-shaping events of the 20th century, but every time I turn up it has changed anew. Berlin is alive; Berlin is now.

Crash out at hotel on Friedrichstrasse round the corner from Unter den Linden, making up for two near-sleepless nights during which Tom was dealing with the aftermath of the Falling Soprano Incident at Glyndebourne. Disoriented upon waking. Look out of hotel window on 6th floor and realise that the odd roof with the fly-tower next door belongs to the Komische Oper. I could almost walk across it and climb in. Vladimir Jurowski started out here aged 23, so it must be a good place.

I phone my friends Alice and Graham who are here too, by coincidence. Alice used to live here (though Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More) and still has a flat near the Tiergarten; they’ve grabbed a well-earned weekend break. Terri kindly invites them along for the evening. Alice is a rock chick, Graham a writer. They cycle over and we wander up to the Friedrichstrasse Station area for Vietnamese noodle soup.

8pm Back to the hotel to meet Terri, who clearly has her work cut out – she used to manage Pavarotti, though, and now nothing can faze her. Interested to see that Nigel has chosen a manager whose speciality is big-time classical and top-end-of-crossover artists, rather than out-and-out pop or alternative stuff. Hope this means he’ll be doing lots more Elgar et al soon, as well as the jazz. Peg for article is the opening concert of the Tower [Of London] Festival on 10 September – Bach and Ellington with the Philharmonia.

It’s the last day of the World Athletics Championship; the entire area around the Brandenburg Gate has been cordoned off and transformed into a festive centre with a small but significant domed stage for the musicians, surrounded by marquees selling beer, sausages etc.

Sunset has started and the sky beyond the floodlit Brandenburg Gate is changing from turquoise to lavender to orange-o-purple at a phenomenal rate. The atmosphere rawks. It’s hard to believe that the first time I saw this space it was 1990 and it was occupied by one of those desultory grey post-East Germany markets where people were selling off old Soviet medals, furry hats with earflaps and Russian dolls of Gorbachev.

Terri ushers us to a side tent that’s ‘backstage’ – and there’s the man himself, happily tucking into a platter of sushi. He’s real! Mohican hair, black shirt, electric fiddle lurking. “Hey, Monshta!” he greets us, with a clunk of a fist on ours. “Great to see ya!” Everyone else is speaking Polish: he’s recruited his band from his home-from-home in Krakow.

As we’re VIPs 🙂 we’re admitted to a pen at the front right corner of the stage, which is otherwise inhabited by photographers, cameramen and musicians’ girlfriends. The curtain raiser is a sombre local string ensemble playing a gloomy set of Tchaikovsky variations, followed by an oriental girl violinist in a white dress screeching through Zigeunerweisen and the Meditation from Thais. Germany, Alice suggests, hasn’t quite got it with popular culture… From backstage, smoke drifts out over the musicians’ heads. “Have they got dry ice?” I ask. The reply: “It’s probably just Nigel…”

Nigel Kennedy Berlin Aug 09 019

Now it’s night, on comes Nigel at last with his quintet and up goes the volume. Alice thinks it’s a bit quiet compared to her usual gigs. I’ve brought my earplugs, but decide not to use them – it’s loud, but the upper end of what I can take. Apparently there are regulations about gig volume in Berlin: papers must be signed… They launch into an extended extemporisation on what sounds like ‘Veni, veni, Emanuel’ but has been transformed by Nige into a number called ‘Father and Son’ that reflects in some way his relationship with his own son, who is 13 and named Sark (apparently after the Scottish island, as opposed to Cutty). The lad’s middle name is Amadeus.

Nigel Kennedy Berlin Aug 09 021

I’m soon mesmerised. It’s not just that the group has a sound unlike any other I’ve heard – violin, drums, bass, clarinet and a funny-looking keyboard contraption that I’m reliably informed is a Hammond organ. I watch Nige’s violin playing and wonder who he reminds me of. Where else have I seen a technique so secure, a bow arm so laser-straight, fingering so precise and assured? There’s a rapt concentration about him whether he’s making sounds like Heifetz or Hendrix – and he does a lot of the latter, heaven knows how, since the violin is still a violin even if it is plugged into an amp… Physically, he doesn’t emote or throw himself about; under the Mohican, beyond the beer bottle, he just oozes music. Hmm…got it: Nathan Milstein. Gulp.

Then he hauls violinist Kathy Gowers out from backstage, gives her a five-stringed electric fiddle and gets her to play two Bartok duos with him – this has been arranged at just a few hours’ notice, since Kathy had happened to turn up in Berlin that day and popped along to say hi… “This absolutely wasn’t meant to be in the programme,” Terri remarks, but she’s smiling. She can’t help loving it either.

Here they are playing the Ruthenian Kolomeika.

There’s something incongruously cute about Nigel. A lot of great musicians never quite grow up; it’s the enthusiasm, the living in the moment, the ‘now’ quality of music-making that focuses everything, like a magnifying glass trapping rays of sun to set things on fire. Most of us lose that thrill of being alive, but the best musicians don’t. It keeps them childlike even if they’re 52, as, quite unbelievably, he is.

He works the crowd: “You’re a beautiful audience! What’s your name, my baby…? Simone? That’s my favourite name… It’s f***ing awesome up here – I’ve got a better view than you have! Berlin – nummer eins!” Then he announces he’s going to take a bow now, in case they decide they don’t like him later, and that it is a ‘Shakespearean’ bow. It entails galloping from the back of the stage to the front flapping his hands madly, then galloping back again. Terri shakes her head indulgently, Alice and Graham crack up laughing – “What a nutcase!” – and I wonder how exactly I’m going to get any sense out of this guy in the interview.

10.15pm The gig is over and we slope backstage, where Nigel is greeting friends and hugging the band. The backstage facilities in this tent are better than many concert halls, complete with catering that includes healthy salads and fruit, plus a fridge full of assorted noxious bottles. Nigel picks neat vodka in a tall tumbler and I feel extremely tame with my nice little glass of white wine.

But in the dressing-room tent, there’s no monkey business when we sit down to talk. He doesn’t mince his words as he tells me exactly what he thinks of the Four Seasons, globalisation’s effect in Poland, his favourite fiddlers, his own music, the situation in Israel/Palestine – he’s refusing to play in the former – and much more. I give him a copy of Hungarian Dances, since it’s all about classical versus Gypsy fiddlers – we hear he has a Gypsy project in the pipeline…but the reason he’s thrilled with it is that Karina/Mimi/Pinwoman on the front cover is (drumroll) wearing Aston Villa colours.  

We emerge to find our friends ensconced in the catering tent where one of the Poles appears to have intense, crazy and hopeless Polish hots for Alice the rock chick. Graham sits by looking slightly British while the musos spar over the beer. Everyone lingers until the organisers want to take down the marquees, upon which Nigel promptly invites us all back to his hotel room to continue the party.

Monday, 12.30am. We’re in the shiny-floored hotel lobby waiting for the others and as Nigel lopes in, Alice goes into performance mode. She takes a run across the foyer, drops to her knees and slides four metres to arrive his feet, doubling herself flat backwards from said knees and playing air violin all the while…I’m about to ask her to do it again so I can film her, but then I see the burn marks and think better of it. She’s about to tour with a heavy metal band in the States and when she describes her working schedule – 74 stadium concerts in 10 weeks, each show two and three-quarter hours, sometimes two a day, all at unbelievably high volume and involving crazy costumes, dry ice and being lowered in a harness from the stratospheres while playing the violin, not to mention sleeping on a moving bus in between shows – I begin to think that certain classical musicians may not know they’re born. “You suffer for your art,” I suggest. “My knees and my liver suffer!” Alice quips.

A few minutes later we’re all in Nigel’s suite and I am glad my room is not next door or directly below since the Berlin regulations about volume evidently don’t apply in here. Somehow I end up with a bottle of beer in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other, and while the musicians let their hair down (Nigel’s stays entirely upright, but that’s just the gel) Graham and I try to find a quieter bit of room in which to have a friendly authors’ grumble about the state of the publishing industry. Alice fends off drooling Poles. Somebody heads for the window and targets passers-by many floors below with tiddly-wink beer-bottle tops. This is one of the party’s milder pastimes. Later Alice and Graham take what’s become the dancefloor and display hot moves. Terri keeps an eagle eye on other things – “I don’t want a bill for furniture!” – but as another champagne cork goes flying she decides it’s time to turn in.

Eventually wilt and conk out in own room at 2am, wondering how Graham and Alice are going to manage their long cycle home.

6am King of hangovers. Nurofen. Sleep.

Monday 10am Terri and I head back to the airport. Outside the hotel, the bicycles have gone: my friends must have got back by hook or by crook (later Graham tells me they nearly cycled totally the wrong way down Friedrichstrasse…). At Tegel we find the check-in queue dominated by (another drumroll) the entire British Athletics Team with all its gear, heading home. They are all on our plane! I wonder if I’m hallucinating.

3pm Arrive home and crash. Blimey, guv. That was some trip.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"