By Inge Kjemtrup
It sounds like a fantasy dreamed up by a record-label executive after a three-martini lunch: a concerto by world-famous jazz trumpeter and bandleader Wynton Marsalis, written especially for the Scottish-born violinist Nicola Benedetti.
But it isn’t a fantasy—Benedetti has been performing Marsalis’ vibrant Violin Concerto in D around the world since its premiere in 2015, and the work is scheduled for release July 12 on a Decca recording. Even better, the two artists have been friends for years and the concerto reflects their friendship and mutual admiration.
That’s not to say there weren’t a few hiccups along the way.
Take, for instance, Benedetti’s first reaction to the score. “My initial response was that it wasn’t challenging enough violinistically, and that he had to make everything more difficult,” she tells me in a phone interview. “The way I explained it to him was that I’m used to playing pieces that literally take me weeks before I can even attempt to play them in tempo.”
Other composers might have been offended by this request, but Marsalis seems to have taken it in stride. “I’m always trying to become clearer with my compositions, mainly with orchestration because I didn’t really study it formally,” he says. “I learn as I go along.”
This may seem like a very modest remark coming from a musician who has been making his mark as a composer for several decades. In 1997, Marsalis was the first jazz musician to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Music, for his oratorio Blood in the Fields. The New Orleans native now has a large catalog, including four symphonies and a string quartet. His composing career builds upon his accomplishments as a jazz trumpet player and bandleader, a classical trumpet soloist, and the co-founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Lincoln Center was also where Marsalis and Benedetti first met, in 2005, at the Academy of Achievement Summit. Marsalis was receiving an award and performing with his quintet, while the 17-year-old Benedetti was a student delegate. Her performance impressed the older musician, and a friendship was born.
“Down through the years I’d speak with her every now and then, and we’d talk about all kinds of different things,” recalls Marsalis. “She is interested in a lot of different types of music.”
So how did the concerto come about? Benedetti explains that she was inspired when she heard a performance of Marsalis’ A Fiddler’s Tale in London. She asked herself, “How something can be so intricate and intelligent, have so much depth, but be so uplifting and have everybody smiling so much?” Benedetti and her manager went backstage to talk to Marsalis and “began the process of begging him to write something for violin,” she says. It took two years and some false starts. For a while, it looked like he might write a solo violin work (she got that, too: the Fiddle Dance Suite, also on the new CD). For a while, it wasn’t clear if the piece would see the light of day at all.
Finding and nurturing common musical ground between differing arts and musical styles has been a lifetime fascination of mine.
“Wynton is kind of difficult to pin down when it comes to knowing whether he’s really being serious about something or not,” Benedetti says carefully. “I think so many people demand so much of his time that he, very humorously, will agree to things and you’re never quite sure whether he really means it. So, I will never forget the day that I got a note in writing from him saying yes, Nicola’s management team have my full approval to go and seek commissions for a violin concerto. That was a huge triumph.”
With major orchestras, including the London Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, and Los Angeles Philharmonic, signed up as co-commissioners, Marsalis began to compose. “I always start with just an outline,” he says of his composing process. “She says she wanted something that would be virtuosic but also soulful. And she wanted it to be something that would allow her to play different moods and characters, like an actor would do.” As he writes in the CD notes, Benedetti had asked him to “invite a diverse world of people into the experience of this piece,” a challenge he welcomed,
“because finding and nurturing common musical ground between differing arts and musical styles has been a lifetime fascination of mine.”
As Marsalis wrote, a back-and-forth began, which sometimes involved meeting in person. “One great education was having an opportunity to have her play the piece and critique and tell me what worked and what didn’t—the dynamics, the balance,” Marsalis says. “After each performance she would send me maybe 80 or 90 suggestions, and it would be very tiny things like, ‘This should be fp.’”
Eighty to 90 suggestions? That sounds like a lot, but Benedetti explains that her feedback was “extremely detailed and very specific. It would be anything from dynamics to orchestration, to perhaps this voice would be better off starting up high here.” She says, “Over several iterations of me feeding back he began to really trust my views and saw that I wasn’t just trying to change things for the sake of it. I was only mentioning things that I had a really strong feeling toward.”
“I would say a majority of those changes made the piece better,” agrees Marsalis “That kind of nuance and attention she gave made it better and more playable and practical.”
The not-yet-complete concerto was given a pre-premiere road test in summer 2015, in Chautauqua, New York. The nerves and the friendship of the two artists are on display in an entertaining BBC documentary, The Making of a Concerto. Marsalis is asked at one point what his goal is with the concerto: “I want people to like it!”
The premiere, in London in 2015, did not receive unanimously outstanding reviews. Did the concerto have to be rewritten? Benedetti quashes this notion. “In actual fact, all melody, all harmony, all structure, all texture have fundamentally not really changed since his initial conception of the piece. I would say the thing that has changed most drastically is something that—even though I warned him—he 100 percent underestimated how delicate the violin sound is.”
Benedetti has a big violin sound, but even so: “I kept saying to him, this is all very well, but I’m not a trumpet, I’m not a trombone, I’m not a percussion section, and I’m certainly not a full orchestra, you know.” Adjusting the balance was the major priority.
Marsalis admits, “The first time I wrote an orchestra piece, I didn’t understand a single trumpet could outblow an entire string section!” After the premiere, he says, “I brought the dynamics of the entire piece down a dynamic.”
By the time Benedetti and Marsalis, along with the Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Cristian Macelăru, were preparing for the live recording at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, the balance had been finetuned and the Violin Concerto had found a place in Benedetti’s repertory. “It has unbelievable clarity to it and that’s an extremely bold place to be,” she says.
Coming to the concerto for the first time via the new recording, I was struck by how the first movement, Rhapsody, is almost a world onto itself. That was intentional, explains the composer: “In general, I like the pieces that come out of the first movement and I like everything to come out of one or two themes that are in the beginning.”
Marsalis talks me through the concerto, starting with the opening of the Rhapsody, “tender sweet dreamlike” that evolves into a “nightmare section of the dream that is the antecedent for the second movement.” The second movement, Rondo Burlesque, is “like the New Orleans Mardi Gras parade dance in different times, ragtime, burlesque, the whole-tone scale, raucous trombone, the violin making a sexy sound.” The peaceful section that follows in the Rhapsody, in which the violinist “plays the melody over a kind of tranquil spring” sets the theme for the third movement, Blues, which “takes us on a life of spirit and engagement. With a preacher in the congregation, kind of a quiet type of contemplation.” It’s back to rowdiness for the finale, Hootenanny, a boisterous dance that highlights the “Anglo-Celtic, Afro-Celtic fiddle tradition, part of Scotland and America.”
The more time you spend with a piece, the more you see whether or not material is connected and related and intelligently constructed. And that determines the longevity of your love for it.”
Benedetti has clearly been having a great time playing the concerto, saying that it’s “unbelievably fun to play and you know how much the audience is getting so that also makes it very fun.” When we spoke, Benedetti had just performed the concerto in Scotland and Lucerne, Switzerland. “These are places where standing ovations don’t happen, and for a piece that nobody has ever heard before or ever heard of before to receive that type of response, I just think it has a directness to people.”
She believes this concerto is one that will endure, a prediction based on her continuing study of the pantheon of great violin concertos. “The more time you spend with a piece, the more you see whether or not material is connected and related and intelligently constructed. And that determines the longevity of your love for it. Because once you stop being able to discover things in a piece, your enthusiasm for it can’t sustain in the same way. Wynton’s concerto has revealed more and more and more to me in terms of the ingenuity of how it is constructed. The relationship on all of those fronts between the harmonic, rhythmic, melodic, thematic material from the beginning and end to the piece is phenomenal.”
On disc, the concerto is paired with Fiddle Dance Suite for Solo Violin, a lively potpourri of fiddling styles. According to Benedetti, the Suite points up Marsalis’ “enormous love for the violin,” which began “decades before he had anything to do with this violin concerto. That’s the violin in all its guises and all its traditions.”
And to those whose initial reaction upon hearing trumpet player Marsalis wrote a violin concerto is surprise, Benedetti offers a laugh. Considering their long friendship and Marsalis’ fascination with the violin, the question, Benedetti tells me, is “really more like why did he wait that long?”