Nicola Benedetti: ‘Even aged six, I was moved to tears by music’

The celebrated violinist on working with Wynton Marsalis, music education – and classical music’s supposed image problem

Scottish-born, of Italian heritage, the violinist Nicola Benedetti is in demand across the globe. The youngest recipient of the Queen’s medal for music, she is a passionate ambassador for music education, with her own foundation and YouTube channel. She will appear as soloist with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (NYO) at the BBC Proms on 27 July. Her latest album, featuring recordings of works written for her by the jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, is released by Decca on 12 July.

Wynton Marsalis has written all the music on your new disc – including a violin concerto and Fiddle Dance Suite – for you. What does it sound like?
Wynton’s music sounds a lot like him and the life he’s led. The compositions take us from the introspection of a spiritual to the raucous celebration of a hootenanny, from a lullaby to a nightmare, and from a campfire to a circus. His consistent interest in playing and studying the music of Bach, Miles Davis, Beethoven, Ellington, Shostakovich, Coltrane, Bartók, Louis Armstrong, on and on, makes for an absorption and understanding of wildly contrasting styles that is unique.

Nicola Benedetti
Nicola Benedetti. Photograph: Andy Gotts

Why was working with Marsalis so important?
The music affirms a belief I’ve held since childhood – that when we strip away our concepts of race, religion or culture, our DNA shows more similarity than difference. Both myself and Wynton always agree on one thing: we’re interested in seeking out those commonalities, and his music expresses a desire for coming together and understanding one another. I hope the recording speaks to those with a curiosity in crossing cultures, and in complex, colourful and uplifting music.

Earlier this year you launched the Benedetti Foundation. What’s its aim?
To advocate the role of music in schools and communities through workshops, and to provide support, information and inspiration to teachers. We won’t be looking to reinvent the wheel. I’ve been working alongside teachers and holding workshops for over 10 years and we will aim to address every level of instrumental music making, from beginners to conservatoire level. So much phenomenal teaching and music making is going on. The best gift I can give to anyone is to expose the best of what’s going on to those who don’t know where to find it.

You hold positions with many youth music organisations including the NYO, National Children’s Orchestra, Sistema Scotland and London Music Fund. Are you aiming at the next generation of music professionals, or at music’s wider social purpose?
Both! Music, if taught well, with love, passion and purpose, can provide life-changing experiences for many young people. My focus is not on trying to turn everyone into a musician but in a general enrichment of society, and challenging of the often negative images constantly paraded in front of young people. I also want to challenge and seek to improve the content of “music education”. Many professional musicians claim it does this and that, without being acutely aware of its content day to day.

You started the violin aged four. By eight you were leading the National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain. What was the secret to harnessing your own talent as a child?
I was actually most engaged with the emotion and depth of the music. I wasn’t so interested in all the instrument’s pyrotechnics to begin with. I wasn’t really looking to win a race. Even aged six, I was moved to tears by music. Just listening to Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, or the second movement of Bruch’s Violin Concerto, or Elgar’s Salut d’amour. I was driven by that desire to play, but I was also lucky to have a mother who understood you can’t give up at every hurdle. She taught us that there’s even deeper fun in true achievement.

Watch Nicola Benedetti perform the solo cadenza from Wynton Marsalis’s Violin Concerto.

Millennials are reportedly tuning in to classical music. Can we ditch the idea of classical having an image problem?
I’m not a fan of focusing on classical music’s supposed image problem. The race, culture and gender of the majority of composers we still play in concert halls is a fact. We can apologise for it, mask it, express dissatisfaction – it won’t change the past. Does it make Beethoven’s music less good or less powerful or less relevant? But music, in all its forms, can be studied, worked on, developed and created by anyone of any gender, race and culture. That is also a fact. If you have the exposure to it, it can become something to you.


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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