Interview: Nicola Benedetti

Eva Mackevic 15 July 2021

The superstar violinist on her love of baroque, the complexities of music education and social media anxieties 

Reader's Digest: Tell us about your new album—what made you decide to explore Italian baroque? 

Nicola Benedetti: Most people learning to play the violin or any orchestral instrument for that matter will have some exposure to a movement of Bach or a Handel sonata. But the extent, density, and depth of Italian Baroque, and how significant, shocking and inventive it was is just amazing.

I didn’t really go to another level of appreciation for the music until I started working with [conductor and harpsichordist] Andrea Marcon and touring with the Venice Baroque Orchestra. For me, the experiences with music that have had a real deep impact were connected to certain personalities and certain people whom I have found to be as infectious as the music—and Andrea was one of them.

RD: You were directing a new ensemble of individuals on the album. Did that make you nervous?

NB: I was pretty nervous because I could have partnered with a number of different groups who have a language that they already speak together. For example, if they see a certain phrase that looks a certain way, they will already understand how they’re going to play that. It’s very instinctual and it happens within an already formed group that has been built up over decades.

I could have done that, but I just feel that it’s a time for a lot of new things. It’s a time to embrace the discomfort that comes with exposing yourself to situations that you wouldn’t have put yourself in otherwise. It’s scary and it was just important for me to take that step. 

RD: Did any big revelations flow out of that experience?

NB: I say it to myself every single time I listen to my recordings: “I should have just done more. I should have just done more.” I think that I never ever listen to myself playing and think, I know that that was a little bit too grotesque, or that was a little bit over the top. I never think that. I always think, I played quite timid. I think that it just comes with years, the boldness. I’m certainly a lot bolder than I was four years ago, for example. The goal is that you learn and you develop and want to change.

RD: Did you experience moments of self-doubt during the recording process? 

NB: Absolutely. But the album was put together quite quickly so that meant that there wasn’t a huge amount of time for me to overthink it. But also, you have a relationship to music that is built up over such a long period of time. I didn’t start considering how I played Italian baroque music yesterday. I’ve been considering it for years. And that accumulates over the years and it strengthens.

And the other thing is, when the music starts, there is no other style of music that gets inside my bones and inside my heart quicker. I find it to be so overwhelmingly infectious, that by the time we get going, I’m not really sitting there thinking, what is this and what is that.  

RD: Baroque music is so nuanced and complex—how do you get the kids you teach to appreciate its intricacies at such a young age?

NB: That’s something that is entirely our responsibility. If we just teach a bunch of repetitive notes that are the accompanying harmonic or rhythmic parts; if we can’t portray successfully that that is the most exciting part of baroque, that engine driving everything about the music; if we also can’t recognise that when something melodic is played on a solo instrument, it’s like the diva opera singer who’s up there in the centre of the stage, convincingly and heartbreakingly telling you a dramatic story... If we can’t get across those elemental components of baroque music, then I think that’s our failure.

RD: Sounds like a difficult thing to teach—how do you achieve that?

NB: There’s no one sure way of converting someone’s love for something. Quite often they’ll only take that step when they’re ready to. However, I do think that if you start to look at all the different angles of how we teach something and how we get somebody excited about something, you start off spending a lot of time on the fundamental components. So with baroque, it’s texture, rhythm, interaction, drama, colour, light, and shade. That’s what makes the music come to life.

Rather than trying to get to the end of learning the notes of a Vivaldi sonata, you spend a lot longer getting the young person to actually feel in their bones how that rhythm functions and why it’s there in the first place. How can you bring it to life? How does your bow need to be angled in order to make that speak? I tend to try to spend a lot longer on those very fundamental building blocks. 

Then comes storytelling, bringing to life, contextualising, making it understandable and relatable so that the music itself becomes a lot less abstract for the young person. We need to make the language relevant.

I’ve also had a lot of debates over the years over the power of demonstration. How much should you show something and want somebody to copy what you’ve shown? Because there’s a lot of pros and cons to doing that. Of course, you are introducing the student to a whole range of sounds of technical ability. They’re hearing and feeling someone play on a certain level up close. And that is, of course, infectious and it speaks louder than a thousand words. 

"You can do a huge amount of good and a huge amount of damage by having the student trace you all the time"

But, on the other hand, you’re then entering into a somewhat individualistic interpretation of a piece. So how to explain, for example, that the continuous note should sound like an engine that is keeping this thing driving? I’ll just say that to the student and then go, “Now, try it.”  Then it’s up to them to interpret what that means. Does that mean go faster, go slower?  Does it mean play it with a lot of variety or completely consistently? It’s up to them. You can do a huge amount of good and a huge amount of damage by having them trace you all the time.

RD: How has the pandemic affected you?

NB: I’ve been very fortunate during this whole time. I have not had any losses in my family or very close friends. It’s obviously been a time of huge reflection for all of us. Work-wise, like every single musician, I lost all of it within a heartbeat. There was a period when I had no concerts at all. I did do the Proms and I did a couple of things in Scotland in September. And I was doing a number of things online. I’m just lucky to have stuff. It wasn’t anything like what I had previously been booked to do, but at least I wasn’t sitting around doing nothing.

"I feel a lot less nervous about groups of people"

RD: What’s brought you joy during this period?

NB: Getting back to playing. I’ve enjoyed playing more than ever in my life. The things that stopped me from enjoying it before have diminished so significantly that my relationship with the instrument is more of a love-filled relationship than it’s ever been, which is really such a blessing and an incredible feeling. And then, of course, relationships. Being close to people, with family. Just the usual things that bring people joy. 

RD: You have such a dedicated fanbase on social media—have you noticed a shift in the way your followers interact with you during the pandemic?

NB: I have, actually, because I feel a lot less nervous about groups of people. I think when you’re one and then there’s a group, whether that’s sending something out on Instagram, where there are tens of thousands of people there, or whether it’s walking out into a concert hall, where there are several thousand people there, I’m not truly aware of being one and there’s lots of them. And I think I’ve managed to personalise that audience and be a lot more frank.

Baroque by Nicola Benedetti is out now on Decca Classics

The Benedetti Baroque Orchestra performs eight live concerts of music featured on the album at Battersea Arts Centre’s Grand Hall from July 18-21. Tickets available at bac.org.uk

 

Read more: 7 Greatest violin works ever written
Read more: 3 Secret tips—things to do in Venice 

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