Nicola Benedetti interview: “I’m a disruptor”

Nicola Benedetti PIC: John Devlin
Nicola Benedetti PIC: John Devlin
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WHEN Nicola Benedetti voices concern over the spiralling educational dilemma facing young instrumentalists in Scotland today, she knows it will make headlines. She knows she will be listened to by the movers and shakers. She also knows that she will be repeatedly frustrated by the subsequent lack of meaningful action. But what marks Benedetti out from many of the other vocal campaigners is her willingness to roll up her sleeves and do something tangible about it.

Britain’s best known violinist – she guarantees a full house for any symphony orchestra – is only 31, but tremendously mature in her thoughts and resolute in her actions. We met to speak about her associations with the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland (NYOS), which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, but such is the intensity of her professional life, the conversation inevitably strays to other projects: the imminent release of her latest album, featuring the concerto especially written for her by American jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis; and the coming to fruition of the Benedetti Foundation, now staffed and ready to roll, aimed at advocating widespread revolution in instrumental tuition through the motivation of specially-trained teachers.

When we get on to NYOS, the first thing to note is the Benedetti was barred by the Menuhin School from playing in its flagship senior orchestra, much to her chagrin at the time. Having left her native Ayrshire to attend the famous music school at the age of 10, she recalls “we were pretty much forbidden from playing in anything outside school”.

She does, however, have cherished memories of leading the NYOS Children’s Orchestra. “I was eight and too young to get into the main orchestra,” she explains. “It gave me my first amazing experience of this great big massive orchestra, that sound of all those instruments playing at once. You just never forget it when you experience it that first time.”

That’s not to say she never benefited from more senior involvement with NYOS. At 14, Benedetti came back as a guest soloist, then more recently starring in a tour that culminated in a BBC Proms performance under Donald Runnicles. “I went to visit NYOS again last summer as part of their course and did a massive open class with them,” she adds.

What sort of things did she feel impelled to address? “I find that a systemic problem with young instrumentalists anywhere is the lack of attention to sound and lack of physical freedom and trust and relaxation. I’m not saying there’s a bad sound quality with NYOS; I’m saying that the biggest challenge is to ensure you’re not sinking into your sound and you’re not physically disengaged, scared and stiff. If you don’t move and you’re physically tense it’s very hard to engage with the music.”

When dealing with any young orchestra, she says, she tries to empower them to go for things. “You’re not an army of robots,” she insists. “I’m a disruptor.”

“Of course, I understand why such things happen. Even just to get a group to play roughly the right rhythm; roughly in tune, and the thousand things you’ve got to take care of as a teacher, and those fundamentals, like being physically free and musically open. Other things might seem too distant and lofty, and not your instant task at hand.

“But I would argue that without those things, all that we claim to be the benefits of a music education don’t exist. If you can’t be creative, free to create sonority and expression and beauty; if you can’t do that, then what are we doing with music?”

Such straight talking is nothing to do with haughtiness, and everything to do with genuine passion and concern for the future of music. When Benedetti told the budding musicians of the New World Symphony Orchestra in Miami that “all of you are more professional than professional orchestras”, she then shocked them by saying it was a criticism, not a compliment. “You’re all about to go into a job where you’ll be paid a salary, be told to do this and do that and not make mistakes.”

As a performer, she believes you have to fight against the urge to play safe.

That’s a luxury afforded to such young players as those high-fliers in Scotland who make it into NYOS. What would she say to them?

“I would say: step into the privilege of playing in an orchestra with as little fear as you possibly can, because you will waste these years being fearful and then look back and think, ‘why didn’t I enjoy it more?’ Open your eyes to the broadest potential of what playing in a symphony orchestra can give you.”

Wise words from a wise lady – a role model who gives as much as she gets. - Ken Walton

*The NYOS Senior Orchestra Summer Concert 2019 is at Perth Concert Hall, tonight, www.nyos.co.uk