It is not in Nicola Benedetti’s nature to let anyone down.
As well as being a player of transcendent violin concertos, she is the tireless judge of competitions, encourager of young musicians, cheerleader for classical music in education and keeper of appointments.
So how come she stood up Scottish Field? There was a last minute vacancy for a soloist with the New York Philharmonic at the Lincoln Centre for Performing Arts. We can let her off. (This interview was conducted in 2014)
One protracted game of international phone tag later and we finally catch up. I think I’m calling her in Copenhagen. In fact she’s at her flat in Chiswick. She missed her connection by five minutes and has zipped home to practise and have as good a sleep as is possible before getting up at 4am for the first flight that will get her to the rehearsal room in time.
Is this her regular level of busyness? She laughs. Before the save-our-symphony call from the NY Phil, her schedule had been just normally busy. Our breakfast meeting was part of a day in Glasgow to promote her new album,
Homecoming: A Scottish Fantasy. ‘But add in one entire week of concerts that weren’t there to begin with, then it moves from standard to a little bit crazy.’
In fact she sounds tired. Although still impeccably polite and willing to answer questions thoughtfully and deeply, she sometimes struggles to find the right word. Aged 26, she has other people her age would find intolerable.
Her week in New York, for example, was devoid of cocktails, shopping and decadent brunches. No selfies in Central Perk for her.
‘Although it seems on paper that the concerts are just in the evening, it’s never like that,’ she explains. ‘You spend the whole day trying to judge your physical and psychological state so that, when you get on stage, you’ve got the best chance of doing your best. If you have four concerts in one week,’ which was her New York diary, ‘free time is not free time. It’s all mental and physical preparation.’
This means that, whether it’s Tokyo or Turin outside, her own day has to be as familiar as possible. ‘The hotel room, the concert hall, everything in between does become part of the routine. I made the mistake a couple of times of taking advantage of where I was, and didn’t focus entirely just on the job at hand, and regretted it afterwards. I hadn’t given myself every ounce of possibility to be my absolute best, and it’s possible if you do that you’re not necessarily returning to that place.
‘My feeling is always that, if I focus and play well enough, the likelihood is I’ll be back. Over the years I will develop all these experiences.’
It’s completely appropriate that Benedetti is Messianic about children learning an instrument as she embodies all the qualities it teaches. Discipline. Deferred gratification. The knowledge that excellence takes a huge amount of hard work. Is she lying jet-lagged on the sofa, drinking tea and catching up with EastEnders when I ring? Of course not. She is practising.
Another reason that she is such a refreshing role model is that she is drop-dead gorgeous and completely comfortable in her own skin, yet doesn’t make a big fuss about it. She wears evening gowns when performing and jeans when she is not. She doesn’t hide her beauty but she doesn’t hide behind it either. Her looks are incidental to her worldwide success.
‘I don’t spend time or energy focusing on that,’ she says dismissively. ‘There’s so much more that’s interesting, that’s exciting. I’d rather talk about musical or educational things.’
Her new album, for example. Her first real exploration of her national identity, it includes Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy as well as Burns and other traditional tunes, recorded with Julie Fowlis, Phil Cunningham, Aly McBain and other folk stalwarts.
‘It’s always been bizarre to me that I’m a Scottish violinist, and the fiddle is an integral part of Scottish music, yet I haven’t really included it in my path as a violinist. I’ve wanted to do this for a long time.’
The Bruch, a favourite from her concert repertoire, was, she says, ‘an obvious next big romantic concerto for me to record’. But working with folk musicians is very different from a solo with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra or the NY Philharmonic.
Phil and Ally come from a musical tradition of playing in pubs and being paid in pints. Benedetti is a Suzuki-trained violinist willing to get up in the dark to fly to Denmark. Through her polite, borderline diplomatic language, it sounds as if the culture clash in the recording studio freaked the bejeezus out of her.
‘They provided a community that it’s not that common to come across in classical music, I felt really privileged to be part of their team for a short amount of time,’ she says cautiously.
‘It was, very very challenging. Extremely challenging. The music is not an absolute entity. In classical music every note, every length of every note, and the harmonies underneath every note, is written out. You wouldn’t dare change anything.’ That is not the case with tunes that have been played in pub sessions over the decades.
‘A lot of this was created at the time. That was quite something for me.’
It’s the difference between interpreting something that’s already there and making it up as you go along. When Benedetti arrived at the Lincoln Centre practise room, she knew every note of Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No 1. The work of rehearsals was finding out what conductor Vladimir Jurowski wanted to do with it. In the recording studio with Bain, Cunningham et al, it was not like that. At all.
‘There were certain things that took me slightly by surprise,’ she says delicately. ‘It was the last second when we would decide on something. The decisions and the options of what notes were being played continued to change right through the recording session.’
What the finished product is not, Benedetti insists, is her independence album. She is mildly alarmed by the very idea. ‘No, absolutely, not at all. It was decided way, way before I knew anything about the referendum and the
date was set. It’s a celebration of Scottish music and how it travelled and inspired composers. It’s most definitely not a political statement.’
She is engaged with politics, however: there are pictures and links to events in Syria and Turkey on her Twitter feed. As the official ‘Big Sister’ of Sistema Scotland, she has brought classical music, with all its benefits, to the Raploch housing estate in Stirling. She uses the concert platform and the classroom as her soapbox, believing that music ‘forces you into a world
beyond just practicalities, beyond things we can see and touch and absolutely understand’.
For Benedetti, who is not religious, it is almost spiritual. ‘You go into a school and play to children. Something really, really powerful can happen. That’s what music can do.’
This feature was originally published in 2014.