Last week, as she prepared for her Florida tour with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Nicola Benedetti was having a little trouble getting used to her instrument again, particularly the bow.
“It’s like a cello bow right now. Or a double bass,” she said, speaking by phone from her home base in London. That’s because she had just gotten off the road after a 13-concert North American tour with Venice Baroque Orchestra, an Italian period chamber ensemble with whom she soloed in music of composers such as Vivaldi and Geminiani, playing with a featherweight Baroque bow and gut strings on her 1717 Garel Stradivarius.
It was a life-affirming experience playing with Venice Baroque, she said, in part because many of its members hail from the same region of northern Italy as Benedetti’s maternal grandmother.
“They are the most peaceful people, and the most natural, wonderful musicians, instinctive and spontaneous,” she said. “It’s just not a typical careful, controlled environment at all; it’s so far away from that. I just absolutely loved every minute.”
But starting tonight, it’s back to a heavy modern bow and metal strings as the 29-year-old Scot appears with the RSNO and conductor Peter Oundjian in late Romantic repertoire, alternating two much-loved works by German composers who also were friends: the Concerto No. 1 (in G minor, Op. 25) by Max Bruch, and the titanic Violin Concerto (in D, Op. 77) of Johannes Brahms. The programs also include the Fourth Symphony of Tchaikovsky, the Fifth Symphony of Beethoven, and shorter pieces by Borodin and Debussy.
Benedetti has been a major figure on the world music scene since she was 16, when the native of West Kilbride, Scotland, won the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year honor in 2004. In the interim, she has pursued a career of the highest distinction, with eight recordings to her credit on the Deutsche Grammphon and Decca labels, including Homecoming: A Scottish Fantasy, which was a top 20 recording on the UK charts. She was a made a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in the 2013 New Year’s Honors, and is a dedicated educator who works with Scotland’s branch of El Sistema and has pioneered her own Benedetti Sessions for young string players.
Her first recording showed her independent spirit, in that she debuted with the Violin Concerto No. 1 of the 20th-century Polish modernist Karol Szymanowski. In late June, she’ll play the composer’s Second Concerto four times in Canada with Oundjian’s home ensemble, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
Choosing the Szymanowski for her debut recording wasn’t an intentional gambit to do something out of the ordinary, she says.
“It was very natural. I was studying with a Polish violin teacher, I had been to see Christian Tetzlaff play it it at the Barbican — there were two or three things that came together to make me have a huge interest in playing that music and so I just went with it,” she said.
“I’m something of a proud populist; I don’t try to shy away from that aspect of my taste or my personality. I’m concerned with what everyone is concerned with in anything I come across, which is, ‘Yeah, but what do most people think of this?’
“A lot of the time, I do play concertos that over time have been through the selection process, and are certainly the most popular and well-loved under (the) classical performance scene, but with something I adore as much as the Szymanowski concerto, or now this Marsalis concerto, and the other Szymanowski concerto, I will kind of put every bit of heart and soul into trying to convert as many people as possible to that music,” she said.
Writing this month in The Economist, the BBC journalist Clemency Burton-Hill wrote that Benedetti is “a woman luminous with purpose” who has reached a new mastery in her musical life. One mark of that intensity and commitment is her championing of a new work, the Violin Concerto of the American jazz trumpeter and educator Wynton Marsalis. The process of commissioning this concerto is viewable in an intriguing BBC 4 documentary, Nicky and Wynton, in which the two musicians can been seen working out the piece in sometimes stressful and often joyful situations over the period of its composition.
Benedetti has had a long mentor relationship with Marsalis, who first helped guide her career when she was 17.
“Anything other than saying he’s been one of the most inspiring and influential figures in my life, would be to downplay it. That’s quite frankly been the truth of the matter,” Benedetti said. “He’s always been known for having taught a great amount, and been a mentor to many great musicians, and been accessible to an endless number of young musicians.
“Because he always comes across as someone who’s influential, and who leads in that way, it can come across as someone who is dictating. But the impact on me has been the opposite,” she said. “It’s been the most liberating impact of maybe any musician I’ve been around. Over the years, you can only imagine, in my profession there’s been a lot of pressure and expectations to fall in line with the ferment of do and don’ts, and I think my exposure to Wynton has just given me that extra feeling of liberation.
“But I never understood the extent of it until we worked on the concerto together,” she said.
There will be a recording of the Marsalis concerto later, she said, and in the first week of June, she’ll play the work three times with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under James Gaffigan. She’s determined to get more hearings for the four-movement, 40-minute work.
“We need to get it toured around the States,” she said. “I think all the adjustments that have been made have brought to the fore the qualities that it always had, so it’s just been a case of illuminating and clarifying things. I think when you’re writing for such a large orchestration and solo violin, that is an enormous portion of the challenge: How do you make the intended front-runner of the expression come to the fore and make sure that’s coming across most clearly.
“And that’s to do with orchestration and balance and also structure and different textures being used with the instrumentation. I think all of those adjustments have just illuminated what I’ve known about the piece from the get-go … I am 100 percent genuinely the biggest advocate for the piece. I just want everybody to have the experience of hearing it in the next few years,” she said.
Benedetti is thinking about future commissions, though she isn’t sure what direction she wants to go with that yet. Next month, she’ll be playing with her trio, which includes cellist Leonard Elsebroich and pianist Alexei Grynyuk, at Miami’s Saludarte Foundation (April 4) and the 92nd Street Y in New York (April 6).They’ll give the American premiere of Duetti d’Amore, a “jewel” by the English composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, who wrote the piece for her and Elsebroich.
For the Florida performances, she’ll have a special musician in her corner with Oundjian, who was the first violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet for 14 years before taking up the baton full-time.
“He has such extensive experience as a violinist, such intense love for the violin, and interest in all things to do with the instrument and the repertoire,” she said. “We just have so much to talk about, especially with someone who’s that much of a violin enthusiast; we have a lot of talking points.”
And the RSNO is in many ways her home orchestra, having played early in her career with the group and annually with the ensemble over the past eight years. She also has played with several of the individual musicians in the orchestra in chamber music settings. “The whole experience is very personal,” she said.
The two workhorse concerti on her Florida programs have been beloved for decades by generations of listeners. And there are specific reasons for that, Benedetti said.
“With Brahms, it’s the tenderness and the drama and the juxtaposition of those two elements which he puts right next door to one another again and again throughout the concerto,” she said. “With the Bruch concerto, it’s a little bit more of a perfect package. It’s not a second too indulgent, not a second too short or too long, it’s just perfectly formed, beautiful melodies, very well-written for the violin. It has a virtuosic element to it that’s celebratory and quite bombastic.”
There’s not much you can say about such well-established pieces that hasn’t been said, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing new to hear.
“Their quality and depth allows for an endless rediscovery process,” Benedetti said.
In July, Benedetti turns 30, one of those milestone birthdays that usually offers a stopping point for reflection in every life, not just that of an enormously busy star of the classical music stage.
“I’m going to try not to overthink it, but there’s been a lot of things in another stage of me coming into my own and into myself in the last six months, and I’m sure within the next six months,” she said. “I guess that’s so much the journey of growing up is understanding more who you are and feeling more comfort and acceptance in it.”
“I do feel like this last year has been a huge shift for me, and in directions that I’m enjoying very much.”
Nicola Benedetti plays with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra at 8 tonight at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, and Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. On Thursday, she’s at Sarasota’s Van Wezel Hall, and on Friday, she’s at the Community Church of Vero Beach. For the Broward performance, call 954-462-0222 or visit browardcenter.org, and for the Kravis, call 832-7469 or visit www.kravis.org.