PERFORMING love duets with her cellist partner may sound fun, but Nicola Benedetti has never taken the responsibility of being an international virtuoso more seriously
NICOLA Benedetti has tiny wrists. Her new watch strap is on the tightest hole yet it’s still loose as she shows me the special edition Raymond Weil timepiece she is launching today at Chisholm Hunter jewellers in Glasgow’s Silverburn shopping centre.
“I’ll have to get another hole put in the strap,” she says. “I do have tiny, tiny wrists,” she says apologetically.
Strange really, given how much exercise they must get, with the hours of practice put in by Scotland’s star violinist. Between two and six hours a day she confirms; by rights she should have arms like Popeye.
But Benedetti is willowy and tall too, in her summer wedges, with a cascade of highlighted brown hair and big brown eyes. Despite her good looks, she doesn’t trade on them, and this endorsement is a first, a special case based on what Benedetti says is a mutual love and championing of classical music.
“I’ve never done a collaboration before. I’m not keen unless they have a mutual and shared interest, and here it’s music. The classical music industry needs supporters, sponsors, philanthropists and that’s what Raymond Weil are.”
‘Don’t expect every minute to be exciting and embrace moments that are boring’
The Swiss watch firm has strong links with the classical world and is backing her 11-date UK and Ireland tour, which kicks off in September in Perth, and also supporting her educational outreach work.
Today is the first time she has seen the watch. “It’s beautiful,” she says. With an 80-diamond bezel and an 11-diamond dot dial – one of only 500 worldwide and priced at £1,695 – it’s a bobby dazzler.
With Benedetti everything leads back to the music, and this timepiece is no exception, with a dial inspired by the maple tones of her extremely rare 1717 Stradivarius violin, and a matching chocolate brown strap.
“They asked for my thoughts on colour and design and obviously I’m not an expert, so I just returned to my home, which was the colour and design of the violin. That’s where I’m most comfortable.”
Born in West Kilbride, Benedetti picked up her first violin at the age of four and has barely put it down since.
“It was my sister who saw a photo of a violin and liked the look of it. She just insisted until they got her one. She’s great. Then I got one too. It was a 1/16 size. I cried at my first lesson, apparently.”
Stephanie is also a talented violinist, but Benedetti says there’s no rivalry between them because her sister “doesn’t like playing solo and doesn’t want to do what I do”.
At the age of ten, Benedetti won a place in the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey, and by 2004 had won BBC Young Musician of the Year aged 16. She left school without taking her A-Levels, a decision she has never regretted, such were the opportunities on offer.
“I make a huge effort to educate myself,” she says. “The more I travel, the more I learn about how people live. I usually travel on my own and try to embrace the privilege of meeting different people in a variety of cultures. If you’re willing you can experience a lot about the place you’re playing in. Sometimes I go to museums, or sit in cafés, but one of my favourite things to do is just walk aimlessly. I love the feeling of a city, how it functions, how does the architecture mould into one, can you feel the history and progression of how people live and the social make-up? Provided your eyes and your mind are really open, just from walking around, you pick it up.”
Internationally revered, Benedetti is in demand with orchestras and conductors all over the world. Winner of best female artist award at both 2012 and 2013 Classical BRIT Awards, her most recent album, Homecoming: A Scottish Fantasy, made her the first solo British violinist since the 1990s to enter the Top 20 UK albums chart and The Silver Violin also entered the top 30 while topping the classical chart at the same time. She was awarded an MBE in 2013 in recognition of her international musical career and work with musical charities.
With parents whose tastes were more Bee Gees than Baroque, Benedetti has always been keen to broaden the appeal of classical music and take it to a wider and younger audience. She performed at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games to a TV audience of 9.4 million and at 2012’s T in the Park.
“I think you should play what you play but enter as many different environments as you can,” she says.
Benedetti clocks up around 100 performances a year, carrying her Stradivarius on flights and stowing it above her head in the overhead luggage space so she can keep an eye on it. But she tries to spend at least part of every month at home, which these days is in London, where she lives with cellist Leonard Elschenbroich, whom she met at the Menuhin school.
“It’s dangerous to be out there kind of rolling your eyes, ‘I can’t deal with this because I’ve done too much of it’, so I make sure I have breathing space. But it’s hard when you get nice offers that you’re desperate to do,” she says.
It helps to have a partner in the same line of business, says Benedetti.
“Definitely. We go to each other’s concerts, help each other a lot musically.”
Isn’t that also difficult sometimes?
“Yes,” she laughs. “You go through quite a few teething phases of how you deliver comments on how he played, and how he should do that too. We used to have very interesting rehearsals in that regard. Because we play in a piano trio together, sometimes we manage to offend each other, but you do just get used to each other.”
This coming tour will see the pair play together with a group of ensemble musicians as they take on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, chosen by Benedetti. They will also perform Vivaldi’s Grosso Mogul in D major and the world premier of five love duets for violin and cello written specially for Benedetti and Elschenbroich, inspired by their eight-year relationship.
Benedetti loves to talk music but on other topics admits she is not given to introspection. Take the parallels between her own childhood and that of her father, Giovanni, who was sent to Scotland to distant relatives from Barga to escape the economic devastation of post-war Italy at the age of ten and didn’t see his parents for ten years. He founded a chain of dry-cleaners when he was 18 and went on to develop a cling-film dispenser that would make him a multimillionaire. He met Francesca, whose family hailed from Udine near Venice, and the couple had Nicola and her older sister, Stephanie. Nicola too left her home at the age of ten, but says the family never dwelt on the parallels.
“We didn’t really analyse it like that. It’s not until I got older and everybody started asking me about it that we started drawing the correlation. It was difficult. I was away from home. But I got used to it,” she says simply.
It was Benedetti’s mother who insisted that the girls stick with the violin, practising daily, something Benedetti finds “cleansing” and without which she would feel “deprived”.
Would she have been as successful without the work ethic and daily practice?
“Of course not, no. It would be impossible. There is nobody that has achieved a certain level of skill without putting in a lot of work.”
So talent is not enough?
“No, not with something as difficult as playing the violin,” she laughs. “You have to recognise that although music on the surface can seem… not fluffy… that’s the wrong word, OK, like an exciting thing to do, you have to recognise that doing anything well involves a lot of mundane work. So don’t expect every minute to be exciting and embrace moments that are boring. Don’t set your expectations too high. I think that’s very important.”
Is she saying that you never ever get to a point where it’s easy?
“Exactly! That’s where you really have to love the music.”
Benedetti is evangelical about taking classical music into schools and has a long-standing collaboration with Stirling-based Sistema Scotland and the Big Noise project, which gives an opportunity to learn an instrument and play in an orchestra to children who might not otherwise get the chance. She believes that music can achieve things that other methods or media cannot.
“Music is the thing that embraces all of the invisible things: our thoughts, our feelings, our expressions, our communications, things that are going on but you can’t see. You can’t monetise them, they are unquantifiable, but you can’t overemphasise how important those things are to making our society a healthier, happier one. Music can help with discipline, with concentration and focus and the mind connecting on many different levels at once. Music can claim those invisible things in a way that practically nothing else does.”
Again our eyes are drawn back to the sparkle of the diamonds in her watch, each tick marking out the time allocated in a busy day of interviews. How does she think time has changed her playing? Does she think she has more maturity now?
“Yeah, I think it’s inevitable when you spend so long developing something and live through a variety of experiences, musical and otherwise. All of that manifests itself in your sound and your playing. It’s something you can’t really control. Also, sometimes you have to say goodbye to things about your playing because you change physically, emotionally, mentally.
“The process of development for me is never straightforward or easy. I try to stay in an open state and go with it, but that’s not to say you’re not constantly working on overcoming your weaknesses. It’s a balance to strike.
“You have more confidence in that you have more trust in your experience and that you will work out a way. But in this profession the amount of pressure it is possible to feel walking on stage can be formidable. You have to be prepared for anything and not expect that it’s going to get easier and easier. I don’t tend to panic because of the amount of mental visualisation that’s involved before you walk on stage. My mum, Leonard and my sister all say I take every concert more seriously now than I did when I was younger. Then, I was more nervous, and that’s improved, but in terms of understanding the weight and privilege of walking on stage in front of a full house and having to play for these people, I understand the seriousness of that more than I ever did.”
She’s 27 now, 28 at the end of the month; does she plan her life and where it’s going?
“Well my diary is planned till 2018, so in many ways I’m constantly living in the future. But I don’t have any huge plans for a major shift in my life. I’m just constantly developing as a musician, broadening my repertoire. With something as infinite as classical music, the more you learn, the more you see you will never get to the bottom of learning.
“As many people have said, a life is not long enough to learn what I want to with the violin. In terms of my own life, I wouldn’t say I do an awful lot of reflection on that.”
As for marriage and kids, “Not any time soon,” she says. “Although Leonard and I have been together eight years.”
So is it something she’d perhaps like in the future?
“Possibly, I don’t know. I’m not that opinionated about marriage really,” she says. She definitely won’t be browsing the engagement rings nestled in their velvet cushions in the cabinets around us today then.
As a crossover artist, with a reputation as a risk-taker, it’s no surprise to hear Benedetti is collaborating with Wynton Marsalis, the New Orleans-born trumpeter who is the only artist ever to win Grammy Awards for both jazz and classical records, in 1983 and 1984 consecutively. One of his more recent releases was a 2011 collaboration with Eric Clapton which produced a live blues album, and next month he will be rehearsing with Benedetti.
“He’s written a violin concerto for me that we’ll be premiering in November. So I’m listening to a lot of his music and a lot of jazz at the moment,” she says.
Does she listen to any pop music?
“I do, but I don’t want to specify. Fun things,” is all she’ll say, and on the question of whether classical music is more valid than popular she says, “Anything that has stood the test of time in that kind of way probably has more profundity. But we’ll see what happens with all the music that has been produced today.” Time will tell.
The Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky Benedetti has chosen for the tour has definitely stood the test of time, however her aim is always to bring something new to the experience.
“They’re both unusual pieces in that they’re extremely popular but also extremely respected. Sometimes with the most popular pieces, within the classical music industry, people can be like, ‘Oh God, not that again.’ But these are pieces that can go on in terms of re-interpretation in a fresh way. They can really live on forever.
“Vivaldi should have a huge amount of freedom. His spirit is so untameable and the more you get to know him, the more you get to go in that direction. I wouldn’t say I’m untameable but I identify with the ever-changing expression. Things don’t stay constant. Very often I pick up the violin, or go onstage and something will feel entirely different. I have had to embrace enormous variety in the core of how I feel, so I think in terms of temperament, it’s not so many miles away from Vivaldi.
“You’re at a crossroads; you might decide to go this way, you might decide to go that. We’re playing pieces that were written hundreds of years ago by someone else so our biggest challenge is to make the music sound as if it’s coming from us. We have to be in touch with our feelings, which are ever changing. So what you do is just embrace them, and go with them.”
• Nicola Benedetti limited edition Signature toccata watch, £1,695, is available from Chisholm Hunter (www.chisholmhunter.co.uk) from September. From 17-30 September, Nicola Benedetti’s tour with cellist Leonard Elschenbroich and ensemble musicians will feature Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence and take in 11 dates in the UK and Ireland, including the following Scottish dates: 17 September, 7.30pm, Concert Hall, Perth; 18 September, 7.30pm, Eden Court, Inverness; 19 September, 7.30pm, Usher Hall, Edinburgh; 20 September, 7.30pm, Music Hall, Aberdeen; 29 September, 7.30pm, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow