"It's purely the music" – Nicola Benedetti interview

The Scottish violinist on inspiration, education and working with Jazz legend Wynton Marsalis

© Andy Gotts

I meet Nicola Benedetti in the foyer of the swish Berlin hotel favoured by artists in town to perform in the Philharmonie. The hall's golden roof rises up into the sky not far away, and she's between rehearsals there with the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra. She arrives marginally late and offers an apology that's striking for its genuineness. With some artists, one gets the impression interviews are just one of the duties they have to fulfil. With Benedetti things feel a bit different: she's warm and friendly, a vivid and lively communicator; her willingness to share her enthusiasm, to develop and discuss ideas, is palpable.

It's typical, in a way, that she's touring with a youth orchestra, since she has long been a spokesperson for music education in the UK, a supporter of Scotland's version of El Sistema: a role model. She recently addressed the Royal Philharmonic Society in London, following September's announcement of the launch of The Benedetti Foundation. It sets out, its website explains, "to provide variation, inspiration and enrichment to the UK's education networks and communities."

It's a mission, one feels, that is simply an extension of Benedetti's persona, of her own passions. It also takes advantage of the profile she's enjoyed ever since she shot to fame as winner of the BBC's Young Musician of the Year competition in 2004. There was already an indication that Benedetti was a thoughtful, independent musician when she chose music by fin-de-siècle Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (his First Violin Concerto) to perform in the final. "My violin teacher was Polish, I'd seen Christian Tetzlaff play the Szymanowski when I was about 14 and I loved it," she explains matter-of-factly. Just 16 at the time, Benedetti was also the first Scot to win the competition – one of the other finalists was the 11-year-old Benjamin Grosvenor, who would similarly end up recording for Decca. 

For her part, Benedetti has a healthy catalogue of recordings (for Deutsche Grammophon first, then Decca), inaugurated, only shortly after that competition triumph, by a recording of the Szymanowski. Recordings of the great standard concertos have followed, but there's been Tavener alongside the Tchaikovsky, MacMillan to complement the Mendelssohn and Mozart. And violinists have Benedetti to thank for another concerto by a composer-beginning-with-M joining the repertoire: her latest album, freshly nominated for a Grammy Award, features two works by the jazz trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis.  

One of the works, the Violin Concerto, was composed specifically for Benedetti, who was intimately involved with the composition process. It was a "fascinating and eventually quite liberating" process, she explains. "My experiences with composers before have been, I don't want to say cold, but quite distant. This was different: Wynton must have asked me what I wanted 500 times before he started to write anything. We were both naturally most interested in the impact that the piece had on people. So rather than looking at things from an esoteric perspective, we were both more concerned with the shape, the feel, the expression." 

The collaboration remained especially close as Marsalis was putting the notes down on the page. "He shared everything with me literally as he wrote it, so rarely would he let four pages of music go past without having sent it to me and asked what I felt. Some things I suggested he tried to take on board; others he would simply say it's not possible to change. But he's always been very gracious. In fact, I feel personally that he exaggerates my part in the whole thing. Although I haven't actually told him that!" 

There's something refreshing about Marsalis's score, I suggest, and the way he talks about it: the composer is descriptive, open to explaining what ideas and images influenced his writing. "He's very direct," Benedetti agrees, "both in his speech and his music, and he's not trying to elevate what he's saying into something unnecessarily complicated. And I think that seeps through into the concert hall. One of the reasons I pursued him so furiously to write a violin concerto was my experience of hearing his Swing Symphony, performed by Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra. There was a certain feeling in the room that I hadn't experienced in a classical environment before. It's not that it was all chilled out or happy-clappy – not at all – it was just fierce, uplifting music. I thought: how amazing would it be to have a violin concerto that celebrates that feeling!" 

Talk of the effect that Marsalis's piece has on an audience brings us onto the broader subject of how to engage listeners without betraying the essence of what classical music is. And whatever the broadness of Benedetti's appeal, she clearly has no truck with gimmicks. "There are basics of the style of music you cannot deny," she says. "It's acoustic music, so it's never going to be that loud, and that means that, if you're going to hear it, the audience in a 2,500-seat hall can't be noisy." 

Benedetti is certainly no fan of church-like reverence that can prevail in the concert hall. "The audiences Vivaldi played for were rowdy and crazy, throwing things at the stage," she adds to give some historical context, "but that was in a much smaller, more intimate context." Instead, the focus required for classical music, rather than being something off-putting – as it can sometimes be characterised – is precisely what she sees as its USP. "What I try to say to young people is that there are few environments in your life where there is going to be so much focus, that it's not something to be bored by but something to marvel at. You have plenty of time when you're young to party and run around, but this can be like a bit of a ritualistic experience." And a room full of people sitting quietly, she agrees, does not mean a lack of engagement. "There are many ways to be quiet!" 

© Andy Gotts

This is all part of a fierce pride in what she does, it seems, and a desire to stand up for it. "I think generally the tendency is to want to defend what it is you do by making it seem closer to other things, rather than defining and celebrating its uniqueness." Her views today, she explains, have been coloured by her experiences as a young musician, as a classical performer who must have seemed like a dream for PRs and record company execs. "I was caught up in a lot of that when I was in my late teens and early 20s, a lot of this being desperate for relevance to the mainstream world." 

Benedetti does admit, though, that she's been quoted "a million times" for saying that classical music's problem was one of packaging. But she sees things differently now: "It took me several years, and many particular experiences, the clearest of them being the process of recording 12 albums now. I've seen that, the further away the actual technical style of music is from what is generally classed as "classical" music, the more likely it is to be mainstream, the more popular it is. It's nothing to do with packaging, nothing to do with presentation – it's purely the music. If something is a tango, for example, or a melody like that from Schindler's List, it is way more popular. That's because the harmony, rhythm, melody, sentiment are different in that music, and they have way more traction, in a way, than the meat and bones of the Shostakovich concerto I recorded."

There's also the basic question of length, I suggest – a 40-minute Shostakovich concerto, by definition, calls for greater commitment. She recalls a conversation with one executive. "He really wanted to create a kind of 'best bits' culture, and I said to him: "But those best bits are the best bits because you've invested in the not-best bits! They're there as the culmination of something. If you get to the top in two seconds, it's not the same."

A similar sense of realism, it seems, informs Benedetti's work in education. "I oscillate around many different ideas about the purpose of music in the formative years, for the largest number of people. I'm not talking about those that are going to go on to play, to have a musical career, but the millions of children who encounter music in some form – and about the most vital lessons you can gain from those experiences that only exist within music." It's typical of Benedetti, though, that her ideas remain fluid. "There are so many ways that you can experience these things," she says, "but actually I'm not about to come to some grand conclusion, because I'm always in between." 

There might not be a grand conclusion, but there is the new foundation, one of whose main aims, she explains, is to break down the traditional lines between amateur and professional music-making. "How can you actually connect those worlds better?" she asks. "Is there an environment that can be created that's genuinely musically invigorating and satisfying?" Instead of a grand conclusion, then, it's grand questions. But Benedetti is a musician, one senses, who's never been interested in the easy answers.  Listen to Nicola Benedetti's recordings on IDAGIO here

Hugo Shirley · Published
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