WHETHER VIRTUAL OR in person, an evening spent listening to British-Italian violin prodigy, Nicola Benedetti CBE, is essential. Her chosen instrument, with its power to stir joviality and feelings of lament in equal measure, is enjoyed best when in the hands of a world-renowned musician playing some of the Masters’ greats. Recently the Abu Dhabi Festival, under its theme ‘The Future Starts Now’, unveiled Benedetti’s The Story of the Violin, a unique online concert featuring the star alone on a rustic stage vividly describing the little-known histories and intricacies behind four violin compositions from the last 350 years. Following each narrative, Benedetti plays a composition with the passion that has grown out of the deep connection she feels to each of these pieces by Biber, Bach, Niccolò Paganini and Eugène Ysaÿe. Available to watch now across all Abu Dhabi Festival’s social media platforms, we spoke to the maestra about her involvement.
How does it feel to be associated with the Abu Dhabi Festival?
I am so excited to share this project with their audiences. I have been to UAE before and was last there in 2018 on tour with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment playing live at the Abu Dhabi Festival. I greatly enjoyed experiencing the culture, and the audiences who were so engaged and welcoming. I only wish I could be there again in person, but hopefully soon.
What can you tell us about The Story of The Violin?
This is a unique and personal performance celebrating the emotional power of this magical instrument. Through these four seminal works we explore the extraordinary story and sound of the violin. I am also thrilled that through the Benedetti Foundation we were able to work with violin students from around the world on a specially composed piece by Wynton Marsalis too.
As a performer how did you find 2020? Did you have to make drastic changes and how did you get through it?
I think it has been difficult for everyone. This pandemic has affected every corner of our lives. Initially when it struck I had been working so flat out on so much adrenaline for such a long time, I selfishly was thinking ‘wow, I might have a moment to breathe’. But soon that turned into fear over people’s plight, fear over our entire industry and then a desire to make sure we are being as active as possible online in the most helpful and serious way. How hard the music industry, freelance and contracted, has been hit is phenomenal. But from a more emotional and psychological perspective, we rely on playing music with people! Musicians cannot do their job without large numbers of people gathering. We live on that communication. This is of course true for everyone in different ways and work environments.
The Benedetti Foundation switched to online activities quickly after the pandemic hit and this has meant we have been busier than ever. The Virtual Benedetti Sessions took place in lockdown last year and provided musicians of all ages and stages, from all over the world, with three weeks of consistent online tutorials and inspirational workshops. Over 7,000 participants aged two — 92 from 66 countries prepared collectively for a final weekend of activity on May 30 and 31, celebrating the coming together of the global music community. Since July 2020, the Foundation has been running Mini Sessions presenting short, focused workshops designed to provide in depth and detailed exploration on a wide variety of topics. To date the Foundation has delivered 100 plus sessions to over 8,000 participants. In November 2020, the Global Violin Sessions: A Cultural Exchange Part One took participants on the start of a trip round the world through the eyes of the violin, in a tale of discovery, globalism and cultural exchange. The violin’s first part of the journey visited America, Hungary, Finland and Serbia with virtuoso violinists from each country passing Wynton Marsalis’ tune to one another and to make it their own. Since its launch in January 2020, the Foundation has met with over 23,000 participants from 94 countries.
Going back to the beginning of your career, what made you take up the violin?
I began playing aged four just to copy my sister who is four years older and was desperate to play. I was somewhat indifferent but wanted to do everything she did! Initially I found it hard as I am left handed and wanted to play the violin the wrong way around, but I soon fell in love with it and couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
How did you turn that love of classical music into a career and how important do you think the genre is to the world?
Music is the art of all the things we can’t see or touch. It is feelings and thoughts, offerings of generosity, vulnerability and openness. It addresses us, communicates and passes invisible things from people creating sound to people receiving sound. It has the power to capture us, to make us feel many complex things.
It can lift us high into optimism and accompany us during feelings of hurt and pain. The making of music can be described as healing, invigorating, exhausting and all-consuming. 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.
What has been your greatest performing memory to date? When were you most excited to be on stage?
It’s so hard to choose and I feel fortunate to have had so many memorable experiences. I just gave the world premiere of Mark Simpson’s incredible new Violin Concerto with the LSO. We first played it in April and it was streamed as we weren’t allowed any audience then. The opportunity then arose with a week’s notice to do it for the first time with audience earlier this month. Bursting in to tears when the concerto finished was the only possible reaction I could have had. There are no words for Mark’s piece and what he has achieved and it was such a privilege to share it. It’s a beautiful thing when the triangle of composer, performer and audience come together and we have all missed the feeling of a shared live experience so much. I’ve missed it so much and, judging by the audience’s reaction, so have they.
Which musicians are your inspirations and why?
So many, it is hard to choose! I am immersed in baroque music at the moment as I am about to play live concerts of the music from my new album Baroque which will be released on July 16 and the Benedetti Foundation presents its first Baroque Virtual Sessions from July 6-25. The sound world of early eighteenth-century Italy first came into full three-dimensional focus for me when I met Italian conductor, harpsichordist and founder of the Venice Baroque Orchestra, Andrea Marcon. Having listened obsessively to his recordings, I was both honoured and humbled by the opportunity.
“Just bring your violin and see what happens”. You can imagine how ill-equipped and ill-prepared I was feeling. I took comfort in assuming it would be more talk than playing, but that’s certainly not what Andrea had in mind. To him, the music of Vivaldi is talking. It’s the best kind of conversation you can conjure up and provides the fastest way to get to know someone. Just play, and play, and play. Andrea greeted me warmly, but hardly said a word. We made no decisions about repertoire. Notes magically emerged from the harpsichord before he sat down. Music, which was exclusively improvised, was all he wanted to say and hear: chord sequences, harmonic progressions, embellishments, flourishes, gestures, marches, songs... these all had colour and variation and texture and meaning. Music poured out of his instrument. How did the humble harpsichord become so multi-dimensional?
After some time, I awkwardly tried to join in, occasionally recognising snippets of Vivaldi, Corelli, Tartini or Geminiani. Eventually Andrea settled on the safe bet of the Four Seasons. I listened much harder than I played, trying desperately to soak up what was emanating from him. I was so moved and invigorated by his conviction and strength in expression. And so began our beautiful friendship. Tours with his Venice Baroque Orchestra, and many concerts with modern orchestras who, like me, were desperately trying to absorb and emulate the infectious bright light of this music, revealed to us through Andrea’s vision.
Having achieved so much already, do you have any more targets or goals?
My goal is always to play better and to improve. If I play something better than I did before or than I thought I was capable, I am happy. What’s next for me is to expand my repertoire, strengthen my knowledge of music day after day and hopefully through that be able to express myself better and move people more.
What advice do you have for someone just starting to learn the violin now? What can people do to improve?
Keep consistent with regular practice, listen to a lot of great classical compositions and don’t be disheartened. Learning to play an instrument is very difficult. Consistency is almost more important than the number of hours. Try to be smart with your practice. Don’t be scared of silence, of moments of just standing with your instrument and thinking what is best to do next.
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