On a nippy October morning in New York I met with the beautiful Nicola Benedetti. Born in Scotland the daughter of an Italian father and a Scottish mother, the violinist is warm and sophisticated yet humble and generous. She believes in feelings, instincts and supporting individuality.
Last May with less than 4 days notice, Nicola Benedetti stepped in to play the Szymanowski Concerto with the New York Philharmonic. Even though she had not played the concerto for 6 months it is one that she has known since a very young age. For her it is a concerto that allows itself a certain kind of flexibility between the soloist, the conductor and the orchestra. That interaction she especially enjoys. Benedetti weighed up the pros and cons and decided she was able to do it. Obviously playing with the New York Philharmonic was an amazing opportunity. “Even simply just the name, never mind the experience with such an institution is an honorable thing to be a part of”, she comments.
“It is definitely something you have to make a choice about quite early whether you are willing to do cancelations or not”, says Benedetti. “I know some people that are unwilling to do so no matter what the opportunity. They have their plan for the year and they are sticking to that.” Of course you have to judge it on a case-by-case basis. If in principle you are happy to do them, if it’s something you feel you have full confidence in then go for it. If not then don’t take the chance. Benedetti actually did a couple of cancelations very early on in her career that she believes to have been mistakes. “One in particular was most definitely the wrong thing to do,” she remembers. “It was partly bad advice and partly my own wrong judgment to think somehow it was going to be a miraculous opportunity when in fact it was in the middle of a very stressful time and I didn’t have enough strength or actual preparation. I think one bit of advice I can give is don’t think that cancelations mean because of the difficult circumstances people will forgive you something. They don’t.” People listen just as they would normally; the audience, the orchestra, the management, everybody just think “can you play, are you professional?” So you have to go into the engagement with that in mind and you have to play like you would a normal concert.
In a last minute notice concert opportunity, the repertoire makes the difference. If the repertoire is wrong for you at that time then you shouldn’t chance it, advises the violinist. Also, you should think about it twice if there is something too crazy about the circumstances or the travel that would put too much stress on you. There is always an unknown about a concert. “We can’t put a guaranteed sticker on any single thing. For me anyway, I would say half of the time I am walking on stage there is an element of the unknown, of surprise, of I am not sure what is going to happen. That element of surprise is raised slightly with a cancelation because you didn’t have a lot of time to prepare.” Benedetti says that at least you have to feel totally confident with the repertoire you are playing. You need assurance within your space, within the things that you can control, within how you feel yourself during that period of time. “I think also people have to trust their instinct a lot. There is so much advice flying around them. There are also a lot of previous examples of what people have coped with like “this person did this cancelation and then they got a career with this and that”. It can sometimes put pressure on you like you should be able to cope with the same, ” says the young musician. “I think our industry has to support – especially in the young – individual capacities. Everybody has a different limit. Everybody that works in the industry can support those kind of individual idiosyncrasies and eccentricities of artists. I think generally we – artists – do have good instincts of what we can handle. It’s just about getting the support to see those through to the end and kind of sticking to them.”
In the end, it’s just a case of rationalizing in your own mind that you just have to concentrate on playing. You are there to play your piece of music. You just need to focus on that and get through it. “I think for all of these things, the best preparation anybody can ever do it to tie yourself inextricably to the piece of music. If that is your closest friend and that’s your utmost priority everything else naturally starts to fall into sort of a lower priority and therefore become less of a distraction and you are less easily pulled away from your mission and your goal which is to express the piece as well as it’s supposed to be.”
This past summer Nicola Benedetti released her recording of Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy. I simply had to ask her how to approach the piece and what being Scottish meant? “The Scottish Character is multi-layered and very complicated. On the one hand there is sentimentality, there is a deep romanticism, there is enormous patriotism and like for any country that has to defend its identity comes a certain harshness and resilience; pain actually. It’s like they have to restate “this is who we are, this is why we are who we are”. In Scottish folk music, as with much folk music, is the expression of a collective. They are pieces of music that develop within community, those were written in a community environment, a community spirit and were meant to be adoptable by everybody. “I think there is something about that collective expression that is always going to have heartbreak and hardship and optimism and all of these things but generally it’s a lot of undertone. And Scottish people are sort of that way. They are not very demonstrative. They are not very extravert. They tend to have a lot of passion but it’s very underneath, it’s sort of bubbling away underneath. Bruch’s ability to capture so much of this is really extraordinary. I don’t know how he understood that so well. Of course it helps that it’s a deeply romantic concerto and also very virtuosic.”
Benedetti’s general feeling is that you have to adopt a certain approach toward a particular repertoire but when it comes to your individual expression regardless of what you are playing it shouldn’t merely be a collection of ideas and decisions. The end result of an expression should be much deeper and less obvious than “I want to play this louder, softer, faster”. It should be something that people feel but can’t describe. The violinist gives the example of David Oistrakh playing the Shostakovich Concerto: “He doesn’t have to do anything to the piece because the expression is so absolute and clear and has such enormous depth and so many layers to it. Things don’t have to be said.” That is what the young musician aims for: not having to do anything particularly obvious or unusual because the strength of the expression that she feels for the piece is enough. Then the strength of the expression of the piece itself is somewhere underneath that, supporting her ideas. “I study from a structural musical harmonic theory and an historical perspective – I study everything I can possibly study, with every piece of music. But that can’t result in the feeling of just a series of decisions, there has to be something beneath that; something stronger”, she concludes.
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