Nicola Benedetti on tours, tyros and T in the Park

Nicola Benedetti and the Stradivarius she alone is allowed to touch. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Nicola Benedetti and the Stradivarius she alone is allowed to touch. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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TWO trolley suitcases, one large, one small, sit in the corner while I interview Nicola Benedetti. The internationally acclaimed violinist doesn’t get to sleep in her own bed very often.

Where to now, I ask her? Dublin, then Leipzig, Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Seoul. Then Los Angeles and New York, for the US release of her acclaimed Silver Violin album. “And I’m just back from the States. It’s been a busy few days. As usual.”

Her third piece of luggage, her Stradivarius violin, doesn’t leave her side, though she does take it out for the photoshoot. On loan from an American banker, it’s worth several million pounds, and no one but Benedetti is allowed to touch it. Not that we want to. In fact, there is palpable relief in the room when it goes back safely into its velvet-lined case.

Benedetti, on the other hand, is larking about, joking with the photographer and looking effortlessly beautiful in a short, figure-hugging blue dress. She is understandably sensitive about press which focuses too much on her looks, but she knows, too, that the interminable photoshoots have their place. Such as now, when she has a message she wants to get across.

Benedetti is in Glasgow to promote her nine-date Silver Violin tour in Scotland in March, and to launch the Benedetti Sessions, a weekend of events in Glasgow when she will coach, rehearse with and perform with young musicians. Today she is a woman on a mission, using the platform of her success to spread her passion for musical education, and taking classical music to new audiences. She is an evangelist for the gospel of music.

At 25, Benedetti has the air of one taking control of her destiny. Her star has been in the ascendant since winning BBC Young Musician of the Year when she was 15. Now she is a soloist at the top of her game, playing with some of the world’s best orchestras, and with seven successful albums to her name. Last year she played at the Edinburgh International Festival, took a coveted solo slot at Last Night of the Proms and won best female artist at the Classical Brits. If she had anything to prove, she has proved it.

But, more than that, she is putting herself firmly in the driving seat. She has designed the show for her Scottish tour, which goes not only to such major venues as Edinburgh’s Usher Hall and the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall but also Ayr Town Hall and the Barrfield Theatre in Largs. And she has been “relentless” in keeping the schedule clear in March to allow schools visits and work with young people. Rather than being a slave to success, she is making it work for her.

“If I look back over the last ten years of my career – I can’t believe I can even say that, it sounds so grown up! – I’ve had lots of different waves, of doing too much, doing very little, sometimes feeling like I’m struggling, and other times feeling like I’m on a complete high. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like things make so much sense as I have done this last year. I just feel like things are clear, I know why I’m doing what I’m doing, I know what I want to do, and how to do it.

“My place in Scotland is a unique position for any classical musician to be in, where I’m able to take the reins and make decisions, and try to enhance the classical concert experience how I would like to see it done. The classical music establishment has such a long-standing tradition of how performances go, as a young soloist you can’t normally walk in and make suggestions or try to change anything.”

When she speaks, Benedetti is serious, careful. She is, she says, painfully aware of “the responsibility that comes with a position that allows you to speak and have people hear what you say”. She wants to take music to a wider audience without alienating the classical purists. She is critical of the declining provision of music tuition for young people, which is “slowly and steadily heading in a negative direction”, but is careful to praise those who are doing good, notably 
Scotland on Sunday’s Let The Children Play campaign, and Sistema Scotland, the charity behind the Big Noise orchestra in the Raploch, of which she is a board member.

In the Benedetti Sessions, she hopes that, by working closely with her and other musicians, young players will go away inspired. “I’m always a big believer that the person someone becomes by the age of 20 is a product of thousands and thousands of small experiences. I really do feel that for myself, but also see that in other young people.

“People think these little things don’t count, and someone’s destiny is pretty much set – because you’re from this area you’re going to do this, or because your parents did this, you’re going to do that – and I don’t think that’s true, I think every little thing makes a difference.”

Benedetti herself didn’t come from a musical family. Her parents, Gio, an entrepreneur who set up his own chain of dry-cleaning shops, and Francesca, weren’t classical music fans. But when her older sister, Stephanie, started to learn the violin, she did too. They worked hard – Benedetti was practising for three hours a day by the time she was eight, and played the few classical albums the family owned (Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Bruch and the Four Seasons) until they nearly wore out. Gradually she fell in love with music.

“That’s important. That has to be there. A lot of people fall in love with the idea of being a musician, or the idea of having a career in music. I think the only thing that sustains you is to be in love with music, because it’s really hard work to be really good at playing an instrument.”

However, encouraging young musicians is only part of her mission. She would like more of us to discover the joy of listening to music, and has designed her forthcoming Scottish tour with that in mind. The Silver Violin album is built around a violin concerto by Korngold, an Austrian composer who moved to Hollywood and became an early writer of film music. His work has been enjoying a renaissance recently, and she brings it alongside music from Shostakovich and Mahler which has been used in films, as well as specially composed film scores such as the theme for Schindler’s List by John Williams.

The music will be presented alongside a series of short films about the composers, and ­Benedetti and her fellow musicians will answer questions from the audience. But some purists will be dismayed – why is the music itself not enough

“Because it’s not!” she says, with perhaps the tiniest hint of impatience in her measured voice. “It’s not even really a debate for me. Classical music takes time, it takes exposure, it takes patience, and for all the people that have grown up in an environment that allows and nurtures the brain to be in a state to receive that kind of music, that’s wonderful, but for a lot of people that is not the case.

“I love and care about and believe in the power of the music so deeply that I want to share it with as many people as possible.

“It’s not like there is less music, we’re not cheaping on that front. The point is not to make the whole evening more entertaining, it’s to allow the music to go deeper.”

She can remember moments when this happened for her. One in particular, when she was a pupil at the Yehudi Menuhin School aged about 12, and a group of teachers played Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio – also part of the Scottish tour programme. “It was the first time I cried listening to a performance. There was such an immense strength in that piece of music that it was all we could talk about for the next two weeks.”

The Trio is also a rare chance for Benedetti to perform with her partner, German cellist Leonard Elschenbroich. As both are pursuing international careers as musicians, being on the same continent for any length of time can feel like a challenge. “I think we’ve seen each other for about two days in the last two months, which is just ridiculous, so it will be nice to spend a lot of time together in March.”

Playing the Tchaikovsky Trio together is the fulfilment of a long-held dream for her. The couple met at the Yehudi Menuhin School, although they didn’t get together until several years later. “He was probably one of the first cellists I 
admired – not personally, from an instrumental and musical standpoint. I absolutely loved his playing. Not that I didn’t admire him personally!” she giggles. “Setting up some sort of trio with him was something I’ve always dreamt of doing.”

Benedetti is not averse to taking on unusual engagements if it allows her to spread the gospel of music to new audiences. She appeared on Rod Stewart’s Christmas show filmed at Stirling Castle, and last summer played the main stage at T in the Park. What was that like?

She laughs. “I thought I knew what I was in for, I had played at Proms in the Park in Hyde Park, I thought it would be something like that. Oh no. I couldn’t see one person without a beer in hand, or over the age of 18 – apart from my mum and dad. We were on just before McFly, and that environment is geared for immense energy and noise and rhythm.

“But we didn’t go on and do a cover of something, we just played Vivaldi, 20 minutes of classical music. I was humbled, happy, delighted and very inspired by the fact that all those young people watched and listened and clapped.

“If you can preserve the integrity of the art form that you believe in, while at the same time slightly changing a whole load of people’s perceptions about what being a classical musician means, then I think that’s reason enough.”

Did she stay around for any of the rest? I secretly wonder whether Benedetti might let her hair down to Snow Patrol or the Stone Roses?

“Sadly, I didn’t get to appreciate the full experience. I saw a little bit of Keane, a bit of McFly as they went on. But then I flew to Chicago.”

•  Nicola Benedetti and The Silver Violin tour will come to Scotland from 9-29 March, including Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on 16 March, Aberdeen Music Hall on 28 March and Glasgow Royal Concert Halls on 29 March. For more information visit