Elgar Violin Concerto with the RSNO and Peter Oundjian
TURNING thirty is a landmark for anyone, but for Scotland’s international star violinist Nicola Benedetti it proved a particularly pivotal moment. On the evening before, she performed at the BBC Proms with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and conductor Thomas Sondergard, playing the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No 1 that featured on her most recent recording – and won a response that more than matched the acclaim for the disc.
As the critics raved, Benedetti and a large gathering of family and friends partied into the birthday itself. Sister Stephanie, also a violinist, had baked a cake in the shape of a violin, long term recital partner pianist Alexei Grynyuk played Brahms and Liszt, and jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who has written the biggest work of new music for her, flew in to guest with a local rhythm section.
Sitting in the west end outpost of one of London’s hipper private members’ clubs, not far from her flat, Benedetti’s eyes light up as she recalls the event just over two months ago, but not solely because it was a fun night.
“In the six months leading up to my 30th birthday, and since then, I’ve had several changes in my life. I think it is natural that you come to another level of acceptance about where you can effect change in your life and see things about yourself that you will never change and you become more settled with and accepting of.
“I am always trying to refine a personal philosophy; I am always trying to understand things. Music and a diligence to work have always been a priority but I now see them as being a source of peace in your life, just like relationships to your family and friends, taking care of them and valuing them.
“So it was a time for reflection, but because I played the Proms the day before I turned 30 there was a nice heightened sense of occasion.”
In the year leading up to her birthday, Benedetti had parted from her long-term boyfriend, German cellist Leonard Elschenbroich – although they still perform together – and signed with international classical music arts management company Askonas Holt, whose roster of artists includes many of the top names.
She has also spent a deal of time in the US, touring with the Venice Baroque Orchestra and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and she is back there a lot over the next six months, performing the Marsalis Violin Concerto with conductor Christian Macelaru in San Diego and Philadelphia prior to making its debut recording, playing Szymanowski in Florida, Beethoven in Dallas with Donald Runnicles, and touring with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and conductor Marin Alsop.
“I could fill a lot of my diary in America,” she says. “It is such an enormous country with so many symphony orchestras of high standard with amazing seasons. You have to put the effort in if you want it to be somewhere that you play – and I did my first tour there when I was 17 and came back a lot less well-off than I was when I went, but it was an investment.
“But we have to put a cap on how many weeks of the year are spent in America, UK and Australia otherwise I would never go to Germany and France and Scandinavia. So for the following couple of seasons the balance is more in favour of Europe.”
That first visit was when she and Marsalis first met. A year ago, as she prepared to play his concerto at the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, she told the LA Times about being on her own in New York for the first time for a performance at Lincoln Center.
“Kathleen Battle sang in the same concert and Itzhak Perlman was in the front row. It was the most extraordinary day of my life. That’s when Wynton heard me play for the first time.”
Marsalis was impressed by the young violinist, and as a teenage prodigy himself, who was touring as musical director of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers at much the same age, perhaps saw some of his own experience in what was happening to the Scots fiddle player.
At Benedetti’s insistence, that friendship eventually produced the Violin Concerto in D, whose genesis was documented in a TV film, as the violinist prodded Marsalis to produce something that challenged her as a player. Last year, she says, it is was very much a work-in-progress and has become “very different from what it was then.”
“It has got a lot better. There were enormous balance problems at the London Symphony Orchestra premiere. We were constantly telling the orchestra to do something different from what it written. Although very little of the structure of the piece changed, most of the cadenza was rewritten every single time we’ve played it.”
Although she has had smaller pieces written for her – one by James MacMillan featured on her debut album – the Marsalis concerto is far and away her most substantial investment of time in a new work. And it is obviously dear to her heart: “I’ve known Wynton since I was 17 and we are still very close.”
At the end of her Edinburgh International Festival appearance in August, playing the Brahms concerto with Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, she encored with a snippet of blues “totally stolen” from the Marsalis concerto – and which was cheered to the rafters. The pair have spoken of their shared musical philosophy and like Benedetti, Marsalis was acknowledged as a virtuoso, but took his share of criticism as a young performer, often for the musical direction he chose.
Benedetti says the advice she would give her younger self now is to “chill out a little bit, live a bit more and practise a bit less.” She is certain that she played far too many concerts as a teenager.
“I was not playing well in half of them, because I was constantly playing catch-up, scrambling my way through repertoire and not giving myself nearly enough breathing space. And I was grappling with my identity: there is this exterior perception of who you are at the same time as you are finding out who you are at age 17.
“I had a fair amount of insecurity about myself working out what is real and what’s not, because there is so much bulls**it in the world generally. And while you are wading through all that, you are faced with the absoluteness of playing. There is something about a level of playing that is not ambiguous at all. A sound is definitive, and there is something about that is terrifying.
“There have been points along the way when I think I have got that, and then I have lost it again, and that still happens. It is very up and down, but with experience comes a level of consistency and reliability. I’ve had a fairly long stretch of significant development and that was part of the gift that I was granted in not knowing what I was doing when I was already out there playing concerts, and not ready for that. I somehow managed to keep all the balls in the air; I kept recording and playing concerts and learned to practise more intelligently.”
Eventually Benedetti realised that she could draw on what she learned from her teacher at the Menuhin School Natasha Boyarskaya without continuing to have regular lessons.
“To be honest, I think things really started to change for me when I stopped studying. I was always a very, very, very diligent student – too diligent and afraid to trust my own creative discoveries of how to play the violin and how to interpret music. That is something that you must have conviction in and must develop. If you are to be the one going out there and trying to tell a story to a thousand people, it has to be yours.”
And although she dismisses any description of her as thick skinned, she does see those negative write-ups as character-building.
“I read reviews, but I had so many bad reviews in my first five years – person after person completely writing me off as talented but not going to make it. That is a really good training to continue to get out on stage, almost expecting that sort of verdict to be the grand summary of what you did after you’ve poured your heart out.”
So when it came to the raves for her Royal Albert Hall Shostakovich this summer, there was a mature perspective.
“When you think you have achieved at all what you set out to, that is the point at which you start to care so much less about what’s written. So if some terrible review comes out, you just think ‘that’s a shame they didn’t agree’ but you have that strength that what you did can’t be interfered with, and I guess that’s what I felt at the Proms.”
Benedetti can hardly be accused of easing up, however, with her first performances of the Elgar Violin Concerto with the RSNO next week and then the Brahms Double Concerto in Bremen with Elschenbroich later in the month, before she heads across the Atlantic.
“These will be my first major performances of the Elgar concerto. It is another one that has been at the level of practice-room familiarity for a long, long time, but bringing it to the stage of going and playing it with the RSNO is different.
“It is an absolute must for me to play in Scotland several times a year; I wouldn’t forego that for anything. I value more with each year that passes the fact that all those people turn up.
“The standard of the orchestras in Scotland, the level of attention and the musicianship – if anything I took that for granted more when I was 19 than I do now. I cherish playing in Scotland so I ensure I make time for that.”
But with all the demands on her time, for education workshops and patronage – she recently added the honorary vice-presidency of charity Tenovus Scotland to a long list of good causes she lends her name to – Benedetti still marvels at the opportunities she is given.
“It amazes me the times I can be sitting at a post-concert dinner with people who have travelled the world and have had at their fingertips privileges that people can only dream of, and they have seen and heard nothing through those experiences because they have been closed to them. I just try to be constantly the opposite. I am not the fastest reader or a great intellectual, but I have intense curiosity and I am asking questions all the time, and drive everybody nuts.”
“The jigsaw puzzle of repertoire and dates is complex enough, then you add all the extra things I do – the education workshops, recording projects – it becomes a very complex thing, so having priorities of any sort takes some doing.
“So although there are 5000 pieces I still want to learn, I have no ambitions to play with a particular orchestra or conductor. These things happen if they are meant to happen and it is totally futile to have a goal like that – it is a synergy of people coming together.”
Then she adds: “And maybe kids by the time I’m 40.” Of course I have to ask if she has anyone in mind as a partner in that project.
And the hand at the end of the bowing arm of the normally chatty Ms Benedetti makes a zipper motion across her lips.