WITH a packed performance schedule, a new album and an idyllic relationship with a fellow musician, violinist Nicola Benedetti has many strings to her bow
Nicola Benedetti’s flat sits at the top of a red brick mansion-style block in west London. From the living room alone, if it was the subject of a Through the Keyhole-style investigation (imagine David Frost padding around in his loafers) the profession of the person who lives here would be a cinch to guess, even if their particular identity was not.
Taking centre stage in the room is an upright piano with piles of scores stacked on top. Next to it are two music stands layered thick with sheet music. The precious 1712 “Earl Spencer” Stradivari violin that Benedetti plays sits on one end of the sofa (it’s scooped off and deposited in another room when I arrive) and on the back of the door hangs a collection of evening dresses that Benedetti has worn for concerts all over the world but that she no longer wants. They don’t fit, or they’re not quite comfortable for playing. She’s thinking of auctioning them for charity, she says, settling herself on the sofa. “It’s just a question of getting round to it,” she says with a shrug.
The life of a top-flight classical musician is seriously demanding. There is a monumental amount of travel (Benedetti reckons she spends more than two-thirds of her year on the move), enormous amounts of practice (a minimum of three hours a day every day, but more usually five and often more), engagements are booked years in advance (Benedetti is currently having discussions about the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014) and decisions about repertoire and recordings are ongoing.
We’re meeting to talk about her upcoming appearance at the BBC Music Nation concert in Glasgow, when as well as playing solo and alongside the young Scottish musicians from the Big Noise Sistema Scotland project, of which Benedetti is a vocal supporter, she will be duetting with Kristan Harvey, the fiddle player who bagged the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician award last year (“I’ve played with Aly Bain, I’ll be fine,” she says with a smile). But as well as that, I’m interested in catching up with Benedetti, taking the chance of getting time with her while she’s settled in one place which, frankly, doesn’t happen that often.
Without being rude, it feels as though Benedetti has been around forever – it’s seven years since the watershed moment when she won the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition at the age of 16 – and since then there have been six well-received CDs as well as a plethora of appearances in Scotland and far beyond. Benedetti is just 24. Some musicians of that age are only at the beginning of their career, but Benedetti has been a professional musician for nearly a decade, since the age of 15 when she took herself out of the Yehudi Menuhin school in Surrey where she’d been studying since she was nine. Since then, to some extent, she’s had to grow up in the public eye. Her performances and career choices have been scrutinised and commented upon. She’s been a target for that particular Scottish habit of both being harsher on one of our own than is helpful or necessary while simultaneously claiming (once everything has turned out nicely, of course) that we always knew it would come right. It’s quite a burden to bear, I imagine. But if that is the case, Benedetti is perfectly equipped to cope.
Opinionated and articulate, she is also unfailingly polite. Whether talking about the impact of being second generation Scots-Italian or the vagaries of her chosen career, the joy of being in a relationship with another professional musician (the German cellist Leonard Elschenbroich) or what critics should and shouldn’t concern themselves with, she’s straight-talking and engaging. There’s a hint of steeliness, but it’s worn ever so lightly.
Sitting on the sofa, legs tucked up beneath her, sleeves of her grey v-neck pushed up, Benedetti is smart and has obviously learned from her experiences – grown a thick(er) skin in response to critics taking potshots, the demands of a commercial industry and a press that can be fickle. But there’s also a sense that she’s always been this way; that she has always known what’s right for her and trusted herself to make her own decisions.
“There might’ve been a hundred people who made decisions and who encouraged you to do this or that, or do more of this or less of that, but the only person who is going to be criticised or praised is you,” she says. “You have to answer to what you have done. I’m not saying I’ve managed to make all the right decisions, of course I haven’t, and sometimes it is harder than everyone thinks to balance keeping everyone on board with you and believing in you and investing in you, but sticking to what you think is the right thing for you.”
I think she’s talking about artistic choices, but she’s also speaking more broadly. She’s talking about her schedule, her commitments, the balance of her life. And her approach is characteristically logical and clear.
“You just have to, on a daily basis, ask yourself, is this right for me? If someone was to ask me why I did this or that, do I really know? Do I really have an answer or have I just been talked into it?”
Benedetti’s made no secret of the fact that she credits her drive and ambition to her parents, Gio and Francesca. A self-made millionaire father and a focused and fiercely loyal and loving mother who stayed at home to care for Nicola and her older sister, Stephanie, both of Benedetti’s parents arrived in Scotland from Italy as children and they had the desire both to fit in, but also to succeed. The way to do that, which has passed seamlessly to their daughters, was through hard work.
If you read what has been written about Benedetti over the years since that precocious performance of Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto in 2004 which catapulted her into the public consciousness, you learn more about the way in which certain narratives are foisted upon people than you do about Benedetti. In her case it’s a relentless focus on the way she looks and the fact that she must be tortured by all the sacrifices she made to become the musician that she is. All that practice, they opine. All those hours when she could’ve been doing ... actually, they never get round to saying what she could’ve been doing but the implication is that it would’ve been a lot more fun than standing in front of a music stand with a violin tucked beneath her chin.
It’s not true, of course. Benedetti is passionate about her art and devoted to her talent. She has been since she picked up a violin for the first time at the age of four. No ifs, no buts and certainly no quivering lip about what she’s had to give up to succeed.
“I have no understanding of that,” she says. “As if hard work and something that you have to endure in order to get a result is a negative thing. To me, to my mum and dad, that is a crazy notion.”
The work ethic is one thing, but Benedetti’s Italian heritage is also having an impact on her music too. Benedetti’s sixth CD, Italia, came out in the autumn of last year. It was a departure for her because it’s a collection of Italian baroque music, compositions by Vivaldi, Tartini and Veracini, rather than the big, romantic German and Russian concertos that really created Benedetti’s reputation. At least part of the reason that she turned to this new repertoire, she says, was to explore her cultural heritage. After all, Italy is her favourite country, she says, before adding (perhaps for my benefit) as well as Scotland. The Benedettis holidayed in Italy throughout Nicola’s childhood but, as is common for second generation children, often to the bafflement of their parents, as she’s got older Benedetti has increasingly been drawn to explore and connect with her cultural roots.
“My dad came to Scotland when he was ten and he didn’t speak any English at all. As he always says, he came over thinking that Italy had won the war.” She laughs. “Of course, he was just desperate to fit in.” Her mum too, she says, grew up with the sense that being a part of where she now lived was the most important thing. Benedetti’s maternal grandmother, who arrived in Scotland with her Scottish husband and their daughter when she was just three years old, was pressurised to stop speaking Italian to her children, so of course did stop.
“My mum now understands a good bit of Italian,” says Benedetti, “and if she goes for a couple of weeks she starts to speak a lot, but it’s not her first language. She’s not even bilingual.”
Benedetti says that her parents have started to rediscover the country of their birth through both her and her sister, but that’s not to say they entirely share their daughters’ enthusiasm.
“Me and my boyfriend went to where my dad’s from, around Luca and Barga, for the first time last summer,” she says. “My dad couldn’t come because he was working but I kept calling him and saying, this is amazing and that’s amazing. For him it’s not such a big thing but for me it’s the most romantic thing. I would like to live there at some point, at least part time.”
Part time is probably more realistic given how many engagements are already on the books for Benedetti. When I ask her how many are already fixed this year, for the first time her smooth delivery falters.
“I couldn’t tell you exactly. Over 80, definitely. It’s packed. It makes me slightly fearful looking at the next few months, it’s like, ‘how am I going to get through that?’ And also, there’s a recording in there as well.”
Benedetti made a lot of debuts last year and was immediately asked back to play again with the orchestras and their principal conductors. She’s very much in demand, which is just as she likes it, but it is not easy.
“I do sometimes look at it and think, oh my god, am I really doing that? And then you get to each engagement and you’re there and you meet the conductor and the orchestra and you start playing and it all just becomes about the music.”
For Benedetti, that moment of standing on the stage with a conductor to one side, an orchestra behind her and an eager audience in front is a time that she can really enjoy because for that period she must be absolutely in the moment, utterly present, no distractions, no planning, nothing to think of other than playing.
“In some ways that’s the most peaceful time I have,” she says. “When I get back here for five days it’s just like ...” she runs out of words. “I’ve got so much repertoire to work on this week before I leave on Friday for New York. I’ve got piles and piles.”
She glances over at the music stands, explaining that they hold about half of what she’s working on at the moment and that there’s another one with just as much on it in her bedroom.
“This is all the baroque stuff I’m working on,” she says, leafing through the music before pulling out a single sheet that looks like what a non-musician might imagine music to look like – it is a riot of notes. It looks fiendishly difficult.
“This is just one cadenza,” she says as I read the pencil marks Benedetti’s written above each line. Just above one cluster of descending notes it says, “take time”. We both laugh.
“It makes me dizzy,” she says, smiling.
The world of classical music isn’t exactly renowned for being the most open minded or adventurous of places; tradition, not a little snobbishness and tough commercial conditions don’t really make for a context in which innovation and experimentation are encouraged. Eyebrows were raised when Benedetti stated her intention to delve into a different kind of repertoire, not least when the cover of Italia emerged and there she was looking like an extra from a Fellini movie. But for Benedetti it’s all part of growing and developing as an artist. It’s what she wants to do and it’s an approach the classical world could do with more of as far as she’s concerned.
“Classical performers are subjected to so much scrutiny, not in terms of criticising in a negative sense, just the pieces we play, we can be compared to so many other performers, performers now, recordings from 20, 30, 40 years ago. It’s only one piece and the composers of the big romantic concertos were so specific about what they wanted the performer to do. Inevitably the better everyone becomes at playing, the smaller the differences can be and that can be very restricting.”
I suggest it must add pressure but Benedetti corrects me straight away – that’s not what she means. What she objects to is the conservatism that runs through the classical music industry, a kind of fearfulness which pushes musicians to aim for a cookie-cutter similarity rather than finding their unique sound.
“There are these dos and don’ts, a criteria of what’s acceptable and quite often that can stop people from seeing something that is extraordinary, maybe not what they’re looking for, but still extraordinary. I think that’s a dangerous thing.
“All art forms suffer from [fearfulness] but if you look at other forms of art in which people have to be creative, so if you look at pop music or jazz or visual art, the point is what’s individual about you, the point is, how can you stand out and how can you create something new? That is a little bit lost in ours.”
Benedetti’s ambition is palpable. When I ask her about playing some of the new repertoire that she’s been working on and suggest that she might have some nerves about performing such demanding music live, she smiles and says she can’t wait to be adventurous and daring. That’s exactly what she’s aiming for.
As restless as she is in her career, Benedetti seems settled in her personal life. Although she says she knows plenty of musicians who say they could never be in a relationship with another professional musician, for her it’s ideal.
“It’s the best thing when we are both preparing for different things but we’re preparing alongside each other. If we’re both at home, I practice in here and Leonard’s through there. We practice solidly for two hours and then we can have a break together and also we can play to each other and we both teach each other. He is probably the best teacher I’ve ever had and he says the same about me.
“We encourage each other in the right ways. I think sometimes you can be in a relationship and you’re really in love and happy but you’re not necessarily making each other better, that doesn’t have to be a component of a good relationship. But it’s a huge bonus of our relationship – we make each other better at what we do. I think we’re really lucky in that respect.”
Even the rigmarole of travelling has been made to work, partly at least through the fact that the couple play in a trio together – “Just the best thing.”
“The longest we’ve ever been apart is three weeks, which I don’t think is that bad,” she says. “And that’s not that often. I don’t really understand how we manage it but we do see each other quite a lot. And of course, we make the effort. If one of us has got a few days off and we’ve been working back to back, we’ve got our practice to do but we’ll go and practice where the other one is.”
In between speaking to me and the Music Nation concert in Glasgow at the start of March, Benedetti will play in New York, Los Angeles, Munich, London, Baden Baden, Manchester, Sheffield and record four BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra. There’s her ongoing commitment to Sistema Scotland – Benedetti visited the original El Sistema project in Venezuela last year and is a passionate advocate of what the scheme can achieve – and of course, there’s that dress auction to organise.
She lets out a laugh after she’s reeled it all off, aware that it sounds seriously hectic. I’m surprised that the pile of music on the music stand is as small as it is, given the schedule, I say.
“I know,” she says, “but you can see how many notes there are per page.”
• Nicola Benedetti will be playing at BBC Music Nation: A Sporting Fanfare at the Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow on 3 March. Tickets cost £15 (under-16s and students, £7.50) and are available by calling 0844 395 4000 or log on to www.ticketsoup.com
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 8 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 25 mph
Wind direction: East
Temperature: 9 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: North east