Interview: When Nicola Benedetti met Wynton Marsalis

by Ken Walton

The Scotsman

THE violin virtuoso and the jazz great are trading tips, as two worlds collide in a genre-crossing collaboration

Violinist Nicola Benedetti and jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis are sharing a sofa backstage at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. Neither seems willing to take sole credit for hatching a plan that has resulted in a brand new violin concerto, written by the New Orleans-born jazz virtuoso for Benedetti, which she will premiere in London in November with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), the creation of which will also be the subject of a BBC documentary to be screened early in 2016.

It’s like a scene from When Harry met Sally,” says Marsalis. “I don’t know if I said it or she said it… she said that I said it.”

“He DID say it,” Benedetti insists.

image“I don’t remember being the one who said it,” counters Marsalis.

“It definitely came from him,” says Benedetti. “I wouldn’t have had the guts to ask.”

Thankfully the interview goes uphill from here, and I begin to sense the mutual respect these two very different musicians have for each other, and the amount of collaboration that has gone into such a unique project.

We spoke last weekend, prior to their appearances in Glasgow with the National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain, and just as Benedetti had been named as that orchestra’s new vice-president.
Typically, she was in the throes of a busy week, having hot-footed it to Glasgow from a London Proms appearance with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, before heading east for last Sunday’s starring role with the Oslo Philharmonic at the Edinburgh International Festival.

It’s just over ten years since she and Marsalis first got to know each other in New York. “It was at The Academy of Achievements,” Benedetti recalls. “I was 17. They do these weekends in different US cities each year, inviting 300 student delegates from all over the world, only five of whom are musicians – the rest are lawyers, scientists; much more clever than us.”

They had talks and seminars from the likes of Bill Clinton, Denzel Washington and Sally Field. But it was at the Jazz at Lincoln Center venue, where each of the music delegates had to perform in the company of the older Marsalis and his quintet, that the lasting friendship took root.

It’s been a two-way street. “When we met then, I was already a huge fan, and we just kept in touch as good friends,” says Benedetti. “He gives great advice.”
“We have a certain type of kinship,” adds Marsalis. “We’re both left-handed, and very interested in education.”

But by musical nature they are worlds apart. The 53-year-old Marsalis, who founded Jazz at Lincoln Center, is most at home in the company of jazz musicians. He’s performed with the greatest names, from Dizzy Gillespie and Herbie Hancock to Eric Clapton, with whom he recently released a live blues album.

For Benedetti, the world of Mendelssohn and Bruch are her natural comfort zone, and while she’s dipped her fingers in the world of folk, collaborating with Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham, jazz has remained something she’s enjoyed listening to rather than playing.

So what can we expect from this new concerto, which, for Marsalis, is an ambitious follow-up to Swing Symphony, a previous orchestral commission for the LSO? The titles of the four movements give a clue to the mixture of influences – Pastoral Rhapsody, Dance Burlesque, Blues and Reel.

And the cross-fertilisation of expertise has certainly made the creative process an exploratory one.

“Sure, I struggle to put the music I know with a symphonic orchestra used to repertoire that is mainly European,” Marsalis admits. “But when you think about it, it’s all a question of balance, alchemy, themes, chords, so many complicated issues I’ve been thinking about for years. I didn’t learn orchestration, I’ve just worked on it constantly like a hobby. I’ve learnt a lot about string writing while working on this piece for Nicky.”

He has a notebook, dating from seven years ago, in which Benedetti has written out scale fingerings and other useful tips. “Basic practical things that are hard to grasp if you don’t play the instrument,” she explains.

It’s like no other piece that’s ever been written for her. “Normally, the whole thing would be handed to me complete,” she says, recounting such an experience with the late John Tavener. “I arrived at his big country house, and he sat at the piano playing through this 40-minute piece from beginning to end, wildly singing my solo part. That was the only interaction we had.”

With Marsalis, Benedetti has been involved from the very beginning. “We’ve had an enormous amount of contact, but there’s still a long way to go. Most of the discussions till now have been on the work itself, about orchestral colour, the scale of the piece, the balancing of the solo instrument against the orchestra,” she explains. Already they’ve made 36 corrections to the first movement alone….


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