Nicola Benedetti: the violin virtuoso teams up with jazz titan Wynton Marsalis
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Ivan Hewett, 3.11.15
It’s a gorgeous, breezy day in mid-August in the little lakeside community of Chautauqua in the north-western corner of New York state. Inside the modest concert hall there’s music emanating from the large orchestra on the platform, which is intriguingly hard to place. The trombones are giving vent to a throaty moan but they are surrounded by sophisticated harmonies, in strings and woodwinds, from a later era. And soaring above it all is the silvery sound of a solo violin, played by a young woman of glowing Italianate good looks, with a cascade of unruly hair spilling over bare shoulders. She looks ready for a day on the beach, except that she plays with a concentrated frown.
It’s surprising to see globetrotting violinist Nicola Benedetti in this unlikely out-of-the-way spot. Since winning BBC Young Musician of the Year at 16 in 2004, she has had a rapid rise, gaining a six-album deal from Universal Music worth £1 million in the same year. Benedetti has become a poster-girl for classical music, but fights against her populist image by playing serious chamber music with her trio, and nurturing challenging projects such as the one that’s brought her here.
Seated in the auditorium, brow furrowed, pencil poised over a score on his knee, is an even more famous musician: Wynton Marsalis, virtuoso trumpeter, composer, and creator and musical director of the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra. Like Benedetti, Marsalis became famous when young, recording Baroque classical concertos with jaw-dropping virtuosity in the Eighties, and playing with jazz royalty like Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Now, at 54, he’s the most powerful person in jazz. He regards it as a civilising and ennobling influence on African-American youth, in contrast to the violent and misogynist tendencies of hip hop – a view which has embroiled him in angry controversy in the US.
This gathering in Chautauqua is a rehearsal for the premiere of his new violin concerto, written especially for Benedetti. She flings herself at the torrent of notes, hair flying as if she’s caught in a breeze. Someone trips over a complex rhythm, and everything grinds to a halt. Marsalis isn’t happy. “That Latin rhythm in the percussion,” he says, “it doesn’t feel right. It has to be more… more…” Words fail him, so he sings the rhythm. It does the job perfectly and everyone picks up where they left off.
Afterwards, composer and violinist are in a demob-happy mood. It’s been a long day, but only Marsalis seems totally relaxed, joshing with his team. Benedetti is all smiles, but sits upright on the edge of her chair. “When we had the first rehearsal yesterday we played a few pages, and Wynton and I just looked at each other,” she says. “Each of us was thinking, ‘Is this really what we’ve been labouring over all these months?’ It sounded awful. But it was just the problems you get with any new piece, such as wrong notes in the parts and players misreading things. Just now I felt it was really coming together.”
Marsalis beams admiringly. He and Benedetti have been musical confidants since he first saw her play at the Lincoln Centre, in New York, more than 10 years ago. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is someone who can play’,” he recalls. “But like a lot of young players, she was enduring a lot of pressure, a lot of publicity. I remember that from my own time as a young player. And soon I realised this is someone who is serious, who doesn’t want to just stay where she’s comfortable. She wants to learn things. And I learn from her, too.”
Since then the two have been in constant touch about matters musical. Marsalis has introduced Benedetti to the mysteries of swing and improvisation, she’s helped him with numerous queries about string playing techniques. However, this concerto is the first collaboration. So whose idea was it? “I’ve been on at Wynton for years to write a piece,” says Benedetti. “He loves the violin, and I think he actually knows more about violin traditions than I do.”
I remark this might surprise some people, as one thinks of the violin as peripheral to jazz. Marsalis shakes his head. “Not true. As I always say to people, European music of all kinds was at the heart of jazz. And that includes the Celtic tradition of fiddle-playing. The slaves, they knew all about jigs and reels. Also, the early jazz bands had violins, and knew lots of hymn tunes and folk tunes. You know, there is a kind of swing in some fiddle tunes.
“And don’t forget the classical violin has been part of my life since I was a teenager. My father was a music educator, he introduced me to classical composers. When I was young I played Bach and other Baroque composers.”
Nevertheless, the creation of this concerto has been taxing for both soloist and composer. Benedetti has had to leave her comfort zone and head towards Marsalis’s world of swing, gospel and blues. “I don’t have to improvise,” she says, “but I do have to find a different kind of sound and feeling. Just getting the right bluesy sound for the beginning has taken me an age.”
Marsalis’s journey, on the face of it, seems less daunting. This is not his first foray into composing for a classical orchestra. He wrote the oratorios Blood of the Fields, which premiered in 1997, and All Rise, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 2002. His Swing Symphony, was premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in 2010.
It’s as if he wants to storm all the citadels of high culture, like Duke Ellington before him, and this violin concerto is simply the latest stage in that process.
What has emerged, after months of rapid work and lots of phone and email consultations between Marsalis and Benedetti, is a fourmovement work with an intriguing shape. The first movement is a “dreamscape” as Marsalis calls it, which goes from bedtime to a sort of nightmare. The second is a parody of various dances, leading via a cadenza to the slow bluesy movement, which in rehearsal seemed the emotional heart of the piece. Finally comes a wild Celtic-cum-American dance. “It’s a kind of journey through the many worlds of the violin. That was Nicola’s idea,” he says.
“Well, it was sort of coaxed out of me,” she says modestly.
Benedetti says she has a mountain to climb in learning the cadenza between the second and third movements, which Marsalis finished only a few days previously and which she’s not yet learnt.
But two months later, when I speak to her by phone, it turns out the cadenza has now been entirely rewritten. “Typical Wynton!” she laughs. “I’m so glad I didn’t break my back learning the first version.”
Any other surprises? “Yes, there’s a whole new section where I have to become a kind of strumming blues guitarist. It’s very intimate and quiet. When I tried it for Wynton and his friends in a club it was fine, because there was the right cultural ambience. In the Barbican when I’m wearing a posh dress it will be a much bigger challenge.”
It’s been a huge labour for Benedetti, but she has no doubt it will be worth it.
“One of my biggest wishes is that, through my time spent learning the piece and trying everything out with Wynton, I can pass the piece on to other violinists. I have none of Wynton’s talent for inventing things, but I can help in handing the piece on to the next generation.”
The world premiere of Violin Concerto by Wynton Marsalis is at the Barbican on November 6.