Nicola Benedetti becomes first woman and first Scot to lead Edinburgh international festival

Grammy and Brit-award-winning violinist will take over from Fergus Linehan after this year’s 75th anniversary event

Nicola Benedetti, the award-winning Scottish violinist, is to take over as director of the Edinburgh international festival, becoming the first woman to run the event.

Benedetti, a Grammy and Brit awards winner, is also the first Scot to direct the festival since its foundation in 1947, adding to the dramatic impact her appointment is likely to have on the event’s wider popularity and fame.

In a brief statement, Benedetti said: “I am deeply honoured to contribute to the long and rich history of the Edinburgh international festival and the cultural landscape of Scotland. This festival was founded on principles of reconciliation and the ideals of art transcending political and cultural fracture.”

She will succeed Fergus Linehan, an Irish arts administrator who staged his first festival in 2015, in October. At 34, she is also one of the festival’s youngest directors. Its third director, Robert Ponsonby, was 30 when he took control in 1954.

Benedetti has been appointed as the festival prepares to celebrate its 75th anniversary this year. Linehan, who will announce August’s festival programme this month, has previously said he wants the event to be a “huge civic moment from celebration to requiem” after the Covid crisis.

On Monday evening, the festival announced that Valery Gergiev, the Russian conductor who is a close friend and ally of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, had stepped down as its honorary president.

The EIF said it had asked him to resign. “Edinburgh is twinned with the city of Kyiv and this action is being taken in sympathy with, and support of, its citizens,” it said.

In 2020, the festival was in effect cancelled for the first time in its history, producing a handful of online-only events; last year, there were a reduced number of in-person events, with much smaller audiences, but with heavy investment in digital streaming of its productions.

Unlike her immediate predecessors, Benedetti has no experience running large arts festivals but has built up a significant reputation as an arts educator and ambassador for classical music, particularly with younger musicians and schools. She won BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2004.

A champion of modern compositions, the soloist became the youngest recipient of the Queen’s medal for music in 2017 and formed the Benedetti Baroque Orchestra in 2020. Her violin concerto to a score by the jazz trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis also won a Grammy that year.

In a speech to the Royal Philharmonic Society in 2019, Benedetti said music “is the art of all the things we can’t see or touch. [It] brings millions together through the basic act of listening and thousands together through the act of making melody, rhythm and harmony in the practice and service of collective expression”.

Keith Skeoch, an investment banker who chairs the festival’s board of trustees, said: “In many ways she reflects the spirit of this festival. Internationally recognised and respected but Scottish to her core, she’s dedicated to advocating world-class music making and innovating new ways to bring it to audiences.”

Founded to revitalise European classic music in the aftermath of the second world war, the Edinburgh international festival has sought to increase its artistic and cultural diversity under Linehan and his Australian predecessor, Sir Jonathan Mills.

Its current board, appointed in 2019, is the first in the event’s history to have a female majority membership and greater ethnic diversity, signalling its intentions to become more representative and, by appointing members with expertise in digital arts, broaden its output.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, said: “I welcome Nicola Benedetti’s appointment as director – especially as she becomes the first woman to ever hold the role. Her experience in promoting Scotland’s cultural scene to audiences around the world will be invaluable and I wish her every success.”

Jude Kelly, founder of gender equality charity, the Wow Foundation, and previously the Southbank Centre’s first female artistic director, called Benedetti’s appointment a “huge step”.

Until recently, she said, conductors in the classical world “were saying ‘women can’t really conduct’, or ‘they can conduct Mozart but not Beethoven’. So this is one more step that says women can take on these vast and complex leadership positions.”

According to Kelly, Benedetti was a “renaissance person. She’s not only a brilliant musician, but she’s also a thought leader committed to creative education. You need that in an artistic leader. Not just somebody who is a fantastic creative person, but somebody who understands policy, and the impact of culture on society.”

Jennifer Tuckett, the director of University Women in the Arts, a mentoring organisation to help improve the transition for women from studying to working in the arts, said she was delighted to hear of Benedetti’s appointment.

Research by the organisation conducted at the University of Cambridge in 2019 “showed that having women in leadership positions and female role models makes a big difference in terms of what seems possible to the next generation”, she said.


Severin Carrell and Nadia Khomami

The GuardianTramp

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