By Inge Kjemtrup
“To play Vivaldi’s music, you must have wings, you have to fly—and if you cannot fly, it’s difficult to play Vivaldi. Nicola can fly very high!” That’s Venice Baroque Orchestra director Andrea Marcon talking about Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti—lavish praise indeed coming from one of the world’s great Vivaldi specialists.
When I relay this compliment to Benedetti when we meet in London in early December, she seems quietly pleased. Marcon, with whom she’s making a North American tour in early 2017, has been a guiding light for her explorations of the Baroque. “Before we worked together publicly, I studied with him,” she says. “It was only a day here or there, but a lot can be passed on in that time, especially when you have someone as extremely eager to learn from him as I am and you have someone so keen to pass on knowledge as he is. Time with him is time well-spent.”
Throughout her career, the 29-year-old has shown a similar willingness to open herself up to new ideas, although when she signed the £1 million, six-album contract with Universal Records after winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 2004, the British press was skeptical, to put it mildly. Surely this young player was being signed mainly for her striking good looks and not her durable musical talent? Her many well-received recordings and her high performance standards have silenced many of the critics, and confirmed that Benedetti is in it for the long haul.
Last year, she released a CD with Glazunov’s only violin concerto (1904) and Shostakovich’s First Concerto (1947). I ask if the pairing came out of the fact that Glazunov was Shostakovich’s teacher. “The cultural significance of that connection is endless, but actually the reason for putting them together was not just to represent opposites in personalities—they could not have been more different characters if they tried—but to showcase what sort of a country and a feeling and a culture they were both reflecting. It shows us all that can happen in a space of time.”
Our conversation about this recording coincides with our increasing awareness of the Christmassy pop-music soundtrack playing in the café where we are sitting. This prompts Benedetti to raise a favorite topic: how the popular appetite for serious classical music is underestimated. “If you were to pay attention to the let’s-popularize-classical-music crowd, you’d hear that it’s too heavy, it’s too serious, it has to be more entertaining, blah, blah.
“[But] look at the popularity of Shostakovich’s First Concerto in comparison to the Glazunov. Now Glazunov is endlessly entertaining—theme after theme after theme—and the last movement is a show-off game between the orchestra and the violin. Shostakovich, in its pain, its darkness, is totally the opposite and yet its popularity far outweighs that of the Glazunov. I always find it amusing when people go on about that. I don’t know what people are talking about, but a lot of the people who attend classical-music concerts want to be challenged and moved and stirred up.”
People also respond to the excitement of live performance, “the feat that’s being achieved in front of them onstage—in comparison to this rubbish they’re playing behind us,” she says as the cafe soundtrack starts thumping again. “It’s just unbelievable. How can you listen to this?”
That said, it was her more populist Scottish-themed album, Homecoming: A Scottish Fantasy, which includes Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy along with Scottish folk music, that went to No. 19 on the UK pop charts. That CD’s arrival in 2014, the year of the ultimately unsuccessful Scottish independence referendum, might have also been fortuitous, I suggest.
“Yeah, that was not coincidence,” she says. “It was just a case, I guess, of partaking in all of that feeling that was going on in Scotland. Originally I was going to do a lot of Scottish contemporary music, but we ended up doing something that more people were going to relate to, but something I still wanted to do, like the [Robert] Burns arrangements. I grew up with Burns in my face, because I’m from Ayrshire, so you drive by his house a lot.”
The concerto written for her by jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis is another venture outside the mainstream. She’ll be performing it in June in Detroit and plans to record in the near future. The concerto doesn’t require her to improvise, “but I have to sound as if I’m improvising. It’s a really wonderful piece—I couldn’t possibly love it more than I do. Christoph Eschenbach, who did the National Symphony Orchestra concerts, summarized it well. He says he’s always been looking for repertoire that truly celebrates America at its best, which is America in all its multiculturalism.”
Chamber music plays a small but significant role in Benedetti’s life. In April, her piano trio with cellist Leonard Elschenbroich and pianist Alexei Grynyuk plays the Ravel Trio and Brahms Trio No. 1, along with a violin-cello duo, by the British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Duetti d’Amore, written for Benedetti and her boyfriend Elschenbroich, is “lyrical and quite quirky,” she says, befitting a composer who wrote an opera about model Anna Nicole Smith.
Despite her hectic schedule, Benedetti makes time for workshops and master classes even when she’s on tour. “I enjoy it and I don’t even question its necessity; I can see how impactful these things can be. I occasionally get attacked for being such a missionary, an advocate, for classical music. Why can I not be advocating for something? I also never understand, when it comes to music, why we look to kids to guide us in what they should listen to. If that is the case, then why don’t we ask kids what they should study in maths?
“On the other hand, you don’t want to force things too much because you don’t want to put people off. You hear of people with experiences of listening to classical music at school [who say] ‘It’s so boring. I never want to hear it again.’ Music can be badly presented and badly picked for kids.”
The day after our interview, Benedetti was due to visit a secondary school in Tower Hamlets, one of the most economically deprived areas of London, for the Music in Secondary Schools Trust. “I’m preparing a one-and-half hour technique class followed by something more trying to get them to understand the larger picture of why music, why we need to do this.”
“I occasionally get attacked for being such a missionary, an advocate, for classical music. Why can I not be advocating for something?”
That she can make time for education projects is testimony that these days Benedetti is in control of her schedule. “When I get concerts that I’m really excited about, when they get solidified in my season early, then I have the calmness and assurance that I don’t need to fill all my time. I don’t play better when I fill every day with something—I actually play worse. I had enough years of knowing what that feels like, and it’s just not necessary.”
“I’m going into a period where I’m not playing so much but also just experimenting a little bit with sound, different setups, different strings, things like that. For me one of the biggest challenges is to improve my freedom. That’s something I spend a lot of time and energy on in practicing.”
What does she mean by “freedom”? “Physical freedom and also musical freedom—just how I can be in the most trusting state possible rather than try to mollycoddle every note I’m playing and control it. I want to be as reactive as possible, but that takes a little preparation and a lot of trust.”
After the Vivaldi tour, Benedetti returns to North America, this time with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra directed by Peter Oundjian, to play Bruch’s First Concerto and the Brahms concerto. Her strategy for keeping these stalwarts of the repertory fresh is to take long breaks away from playing them.
“There are some pieces, like the Tchaikovsky concerto, that you really don’t want to overplay because it has a certain lightness and requires a type of drive and in-the-moment spirit that you struggle to re-create if it’s overplayed. What can be tiring about a piece like the Tchaikovsky is that your role is more like the opera diva. The Brahms is so not like that. You’re almost always riding the line between an accompanying role and the frontrunner. The musical richness of that feeling, the fact that you’re so integrated into something that feels so symphonic, it doesn’t wear on you. It doesn’t sound like, ‘Oh, here we go again.’”
On the VBO North American tour, Benedetti, with her Strad set up with gut strings and using a Baroque bow, will play Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. With more recordings in the catalog than any other single piece, the Four Seasons is the only Vivaldi most people know. As for the rest of Vivaldi’s vast oeuvre, conventional wisdom, until recently at least, was summarized by a remark by Stravinsky (or Dallapiccola, depending on your source) that Vivaldi wrote the same concerto 500 times.
When I put this to Benedetti, she jumps to Vivaldi’s defense. “Anyone who never listens to jazz thinks it all sounds the same; anyone who hasn’t concentrated on Baroque music thinks there’s a lot of repetition.” She finds in his music an “emotional richness that is so often missed: how tender he could be, how intimate, how subtle, how moving . . . I think that’s something that’s overshadowed by this fiery, virtuosic personality.”
For his part, Marcon notes how much Bach admired Vivaldi, transcribing many of his pieces. Marcon also points out that more performers understand that to play Vivaldi, “you must find the colors, you must realize that everything is not written down.” The fresh and exciting approaches by period-instrument ensembles and players, such as his own VBO and its frequent collaborator, violinist Giuliano Carmignola, are also changing minds.
Yet some things have been written down, notably the sonnets, possibly by Vivaldi himself, that are in the score of the Four Seasons, describing barking dogs, summer winds, mosquitos, and other seasonal features.
Benedetti might be just as happy to read those sonnets in English rather than the original Italian, even though her father was an Italian immigrant and her mother the daughter of Italian immigrants to Scotland. She did not speak Italian at home, though the food and culture were very important. Subsequent study of Italian took her to the level of holding a “reasonable conversation” but, she concluded, “I’m not terribly talented with languages.” She may have to raise her game soon, though, “The Venice Baroque Orchestra threaten they’re not going to communicate with me in English during the tour!” Don’t bet against this Scottish-Italian superstar deciding to rise to the challenge.
Vivaldi US Tour Dates
February 11: Purchase College, Purchase, New York
February 12: Shriver Hall Concert Series, Baltimore, Maryland
February 14: Tuesday Evening Concert Series, Charlottesville, Virginia
February 16: Harriman-Jewell Series, Kansas City, Missouri
February 18: Center for the Performing Arts, Carmel, Indiana
February 19: University of Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, Notre Dame, Indiana February 20: Norton Center for the Arts, Danville, Kentucky
February 22: Friends of Chamber Music, Denver, Colorado
February 24: UC Berkeley, Berkeley, California
February 25: Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, UC Davis, Davis, California
February 26: Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California
March 3: The Royal Conservatory’s Koerner Hall, Toronto, Canada