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Spotlight on a Modern Violin Great... Nicola Benedetti

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The lure of the filthy lucre is strong in the upper echelons of the classical music industry. Dangled before genius, the contract that promises to make musicians rich can unmoor and pollute. But only if caution is not exercised. Money, in this respect, can be poisonous, and Nicola Benedetti agrees.

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'There are so many people around me who would breathe a sigh of relief if I recorded with x, y and z and tried to make as much money as possible,' she says. 'But that's not what I want to do. And it's not what I'm going to do, because I want the core of classical music to be as popular as possible. If I don't stick to that, then what am I saying? The bulk of my work has to have a consistency and a clear message.'

Where others - too numerous to mention - have sold out, Benedetti has resisted pressure to play a more commercial type of music, "classical pop" if you like. 'Oh yes, believe me,' she says, 'I am resisting.'

The sensuality of her face can momentarily distract you from her violin playing, but such sensuality is a happy accident of birth, while her playing is not.

A child prodigy, her career could so easily have been blighted early on by avaricious advisors intent on making a quick financial killing, but instead, Benedetti, 26, has stepped nimbly around the hazards that have wrecked the careers of others.

Born in West Kilbride in Scotland to an Italian father and a half Italian, half Scottish mother, Benedetti first picked up the violin at 4, and at 10 in 1997 was already thriving at the Yehudi Menuhin School. Hers was a rare talent that required the finest nurturing.

I ask her if she thinks she is a modern great. 'Without trying to be modest, I have never thought that I have arrived at that point. It's a dangerous thing to begin wondering about whether you are or you aren't great,' she says.

She's quick to proclaim that the classical music industry tries to make virtuosi such as she ask that question of themselves. 'All you can do is keep your head, as much as possible, inside the music.'

Which raises the question of what precisely a player of classical music does. 'Classical musicians read and interpret a body of work. What I do is bring my own voice to someone else's compositions. There's no improvisation involved. Many classical musicians envy jazz musicians for their ability to improvise,' she adds.

'There isn't room for improvisation on stage in classical music. Jazz and classical are incredibly different art forms.'

Where a jazz player will improvise around and outside a musical theme, a classically-trained musician travels inside the music.

'I have lessons that help me understand the language of music. I could study music until the day I die and not learn all that there is to learn. My teacher said that the ultimate goal, when studying the theory of music, is when you can recognise the depth and complexity of music, and how much more there is to learn.'

So the playing is the practice? 'Yes, playing and practising all become one thing. It's a case of self-development and how much you want to improve.'

The danger for an artist like Benedetti lies in the side streets of existence which, like crooked fingers, can tempt the artist to stray from the limelight into the messy business of heartbreak and self doubt, of life.

No doubt Benedetti is, or was, wracked with self doubt, such is the life of the musician who stands alone upon a stage with her Stradivarius and talent comprising her only defence.

'Private adversity, such as heartbreak, depression or insecurity, can spur you on to playing well in a live setting,' she says, 'so it's good to have some level of vulnerability.'

Is she hyper-critical of her own playing? 'I think I sound not that good most of the time, so yes I am,' she laughs. 'I don't know that many players who think they're great. Though you can spot the ones who do!

'If you care about the music you'll risk anything for it. When you deliver music for people on stage, you'll take all kinds of risks, such as pushing your sound or pushing certain tempi to the maximum.'

I suggest that musicians are the least able people to assess themselves. 'I agree. My playing is the most soulful and spiritual part of my being,' she says. 'I have never experienced a form of music that reaches the depth of emotion that classical music can.

'When you sit through a symphony, which is an hour of music, composed over a year by a man who has poured all his emotional and intellectual states into it, you, by the end of it, are a changed person, a richer person, and a new person.'

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Benedetti plays and her eyes focus elsewhere. They see other things, her violin another limb. She's somewhere else. Her soul passes through the veil. Applause comes when she returns.

On witnessing transcendence such as this, the world of classical music must ensure that sponsorship is constant, that funding is ever-present.

'There are enough people out there who believe classical and orchestral music is important enough, culturally and socially,' says Benedetti. 'I am always in favour of exposing classical music to younger and bigger crowds, but it should never be at the expense of what makes classical music what it is: its complexity, depth and length.'

So as her star burns, so surely must her ambition. 'I want to play as many prominent violin concertos as possible, bar one or two,' she says with urgency, 'and right now that journey is incomplete. So the next five years will be a race for me to perform as many of them as possible. I just want to improve as a violinist and as a musician. 

'Sometimes I think "How the hell did I get here?" But I feel gratitude for the opportunity I've had. I try not to ponder the opportunities that have come my way, but rather how to make the best of them.'

The clamour of the mainstream must be ignored if Benedetti is to fulfil her destiny and do that which she is here to do, which is to make art. Down to earth she may be, but she stands apart, and the farther apart from us she stands, the greater her impact will be upon the world of classical music.

She must never cease playing. Simply put, Benedetti's contract is with herself, and shame on those who wish her to compromise the sacred.

© Jason Holmes 2013 / jantholmes@yahoo.co.uk / @JasonAHolmes

Nicola Benedetti's new album My First Decade is out 23 September on Decca Classics.

Portraits courtesy of Simon Fowler/Universal (1) & Classic FM (2)
Watch Nicola play here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQmMwLYyTNA&list=RD47mUG9_ceFxbA

For more information, visit: www.nicolabenedetti.co.uk