Nicola Benedetti interview: Slave to the fiddle
SHE can't bear the thought of parting with her Stradivarius, yet Nicola Benedetti dreams of a life without the self-denial her virtuosity has demanded, she tells Marc Horne
WALKING backwards out of the room after saying goodbye to Nicola Benedetti, I come perilously close to stepping on a black case which juts out from behind a leather couch. A couple of centimetres more and I would have committed one of the biggest acts of cataclysmic clumsiness since Godzilla stumbled into downtown Tokyo.
If Scotland's most famous classical musician's heart momentarily misses a beat, she is much too polite and well-mannered to let it show. As it is, the 1723 Earl Spencer Stradivarius violin which was resting inside the modest sarcophagus survives for another day.
The aristocratic instrument, which was owned by an ancestor of Princess Diana and is worth an estimated 2m, is Benedetti's most treasured possession. Or more accurately, she is guarding it for US banking giant Jonathan Moulds, who has lent it to her. The Ayrshire-born maestro is praying that the credit crunch won't bite deep enough for her benefactor to have to recall it.
"I really don't know if I'll have to hand it back at some point," she ponders over coffee and a half-eaten muffin (she doesn't like the gooey bit in the middle) at the plush Kings Place arts centre in the heart of London.
"For two-and-half years now I have been allowed to play it. I restore it, look after it, take it anywhere I go and generally treat it like it is my own. Originally, the agreed period for the loan was three years, but I don't want to think about having to hand it back. It's just too depressing. I don't want to go there."
At the age of just 21, Benedetti has already played for the Prime Minister, crowned heads and cardinals and racked up a prodigious number of accolades, including the BBC Young Musician of the Year and a classical Brit Award. Music critics around the world marvel, but reviews which hail her steely poise and focus also occasionally contain terms such as "inscrutable" and "undemonstrative".
Benedetti laughs at the idea of being seen as some sort of robotic bow-wielding ice-maiden. "I'm not always tough," she admits. "I can actually be quite sensitive and vulnerable. I'm not this kind of 'women should rule the world' and 'I'm so strong and like a man' sort of person. I'm just not".
Determined to shatter the misconception, she pauses for a moment before offering an intriguing glimpse of the fragility which drives her to strive for ever greater excellence. "Two or three years ago someone said to me: 'I think you are a little bit shy and a little bit insecure, but your violin gives you all the confidence you will ever need.' I didn't know this person very well, but they just got me down to a T. It is so true. The better I play, the more I feel myself growing in confidence.
"If I feel I haven't worked hard enough for a concert I sometimes feel I don't deserve to play really well. If I don't play really well, I don't feel I deserve to be celebrated in any way. If I don't hear myself playing well then nothing matters to me."
However, Benedetti is keen to answer back to those critics who she feels have been overzealous in their sweeping assertions about her. "I just look at some reviews and think, 'Who do you think you are?' Don't try to act like you know everything about me and everything about my playing and my entire potential for the future.
"Just review the damn concert. Chill out, do your job and just tell people how you think I played that night."
The former pupil of the prestigious Yehudi Menuhin School feels her own "brutal" honesty and self-criticism keep her feet firmly on the ground. Sure enough, she responds to claims that she might be a bit of a "goody-goody" – a sort of 21st century Sandra Dee from Grease – with good humour and wide-eyed bemusement rather than a diva-ish strop.
She says: "I'm sorry that I don't do drugs or smoke or drink huge amounts of alcohol. If I wanted to be involved in some big scandal I'm sure I could, but I am just not interested. I would never try to get attention in that way."
Chestnut hair swishes as the violinist turns to her personal assistant Hannah, for backup: "I'm not a goody-goody, am I?"
Hannah responds with an immediate shake of the head, but adds: "It's not a bad thing anyway."
It becomes clear that Benedetti's dedication to her instrument is such that a life of partying and excess could never be an option. Since the age of four, the gifted instrumentalist has spent nearly every day either practising for up to eight hours or performing. "I really don't have much time for indulgences," she says. "The brutal reality is that if you have a dedication to something like playing an instrument, and if you want more than anything to get better and better at doing it, you are almost like a prisoner to it.
"People have no idea how many small things in your life go on hold because you have to practise every day. It is not something that I ever think about unless I am asked, but if I am really honest that's the truth."
There is a longish pause when she is asked how she relaxes in her spare time.
"When everything is so busy and you are around so many people, when there is constant music and constant sound in your ears, just doing nothing can be the best thing ever."
Does she ever feel like rebelling? "Sometimes I do. There are days, very occasionally, when I don't touch the violin at all. Nobody was home over the weekend and I thought to myself: 'Nicky, get all your practice done by eight and then go out. Did I? No. I stopped practising early and just went to sleep."
But this intelligent, articulate and refreshingly candid musician, whose name is invariably prefixed by the word 'prodigy' in broadsheets and 'sexy' in tabloids, does see a time where she might cut herself some slack and make more time for friends, cinema visits, holidays, dining out, and for the boyfriend that she "maybe" has.
In fact, like Soviet leaders of old, the West Kilbride talent, who signed a 1m record deal at the age of 16, has a five-year plan.
"In the next five years, I will aim to do between six and eight hours of practice every day, except on concert days. If I achieve that, I won't have to practise so much if I don't want to. I would use the time to travel to the places that I have been to for concerts. Places I have been, but never seen." But she finds it difficult to conceive of ever divorcing herself from her violin playing.
"Some people can't get away from their lifetime dedication to their instrument. I think I'm one of those people. Something very drastic would have to change for me to stop playing, like I lost all my fingers.
"I'm starting to think more and more that we are all much more complicated than we think. If everyone had carte blanche we would all do quite strange things. Some of us are quite straightforward, but a lot of us aren't ."
Nicola Benedetti plays Eden Court Theatre, Inverness on May 30, Perth Concert Hall on May 31 and Aberdeen Music Hall on September 19. www.nicolabenedetti.co.uk
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