March 25, 2011 at 5:16 PM
I was driving at night when I heard the familiar introduction and the long and low "G" that begins the Violin Concerto by Max Bruch. The public radio host happened to be featuring Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti's new recording of the Bruch and Tchaikovsky Violin Concertos, recorded with the Czech Philharmonic under conductor Jakub Hruša; I happened to be preparing to speak to her the next day.
Oh the Bruch, why the Bruch? Like many young violinists, I studied it to death back in college – then left it for dead.
But there it was, pouring out of my car speakers – and gorgeously, I must admit. I'd forgotten; this is a beautiful piece. I was picking up my son from his choir practice, so I decided to wait for him in the car and keep listening. I hadn't remembered the peace and stillness of the second movement – it's so soothing, and Nicola inhabits it with ease. My son, age 10, hopped into the car just in time for rollicking chords of the last movement. "Oh I love this music!" he said with the innocent enthusiasm of someone who has never wrestled with the pesky thirds peppered throughout the Finale.
It's not unusual for violinists to come to think of pieces such as the Bruch as a stepping stone, associated with a good deal of drudgery.
"I think that's such a danger with works that are not only popular in the concert platform but are also used as teaching pieces and practicing pieces," said Nicola the next day, speaking to me over the phone from New York. "I don't think (the Bruch) really deserves that sort of position. But on the other hand, it's great that most violin students are exposed to the music at quite a young age."
Photo: Kevin Westenberg
Nicola, 23, appears rather young herself, but she has already lived a very full experience as a touring and recording soloist. Since winning BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2004, she has performed with orchestras across the globe and made numerous recordings with Deutsche Grammophon, including a 2009 album of showpieces and encores called Fantasie, a 2008 recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams' 'Lark Ascending' and works by John Tavener; a 2006 recording of the Mendelssohn Violin concerto and new piece written for Nicola by James MacMillan, and a 2006 recording of the Szymanowski Violin Concerto, Chausson 'Poeme' and more.
Recording the Tchaikovsky and the Bruch Concertos – two of the most popular in the literature, was a bit of a heavy decision, she said.
"The recordings are inevitably always measured against all the other recordings of these concertos," Nicola said. "I have a very personal and very specific viewpoint of the two concertos and how they link together and how they differ, but yes, it was something I really had to feel ready to do, and I definitely took my time arriving at that decision."
The Bruch Concerto was written in 1866 when the composer was 28, for the violinist Joseph Joachim. Violinists and audiences immediately embraced the piece – even to the point of frustration for Bruch, who lived in the shadow of his immensely popular work (for which he was paid only a small sum and never any royalties) until he was 82. Tchaikovsky's violin concerto, written some 12 years later when the composer was in middle age, was rejected by critics and even by its dedicatee, Leopold Auer, who pronounced it "unplayable." Auer later came around -- so did the critics.
"They are much more contrasting than linking," she said of the Tchaikovsky and Bruch violin concertos. "They're both usually thought of as Romantic concertos, but they are structured very differently. Bruch was quite innovative and fresh, his opening movement being a prelude and the second movement being the longest of the three and definitely the sort of meatiest movement. The last movement is quite heavy and rustic and quite bold.
"Tchaikovsky, structurally, is totally different," Nicola said. "The first movement is really the meat of the concerto, it's very typical format of sonata form, with the recapitulation which literally repeats every single note of the exposition and puts you through your paces, basically, with a coda that's probably more tricky than most codas of most violin concertos. The second movement is so fleeting and light, and just almost a short song. And the last movement is a chase. It's so wild and it's so driven and on the crazy side. So structurally, they are two very, very different concertos."
"But also, characteristically I claim them to be quite opposite, though both represent what it is about Romantic violin music that people love so much and why the Romantic era of violin-playing is so hugely popular," Nicola said. The Bruch Violin Concerto has an "openness and sort of optimism; there's so much peace and harmony within the concerto." The second movement, for example, is "emotive but still so optimistic. It's quite rare for a composer to manage that."
"Tchaikovsky is quite the opposite; there's not a moment of rest in the whole piece, as far as I can see," Nicola said. "Even the second subject of the first movement, which is a melody and which is meant to be a real contrast to everything that's come before: within ten bars it is already searching for something that's never quite reached; it's really unsettled. It couldn't be more contrasting in its character to what the Bruch represents. I think they both show really important values of what the compositional style was of the Romantic era."
Nicola plays the 1723 "Earl Spencer" Strad, on loan from Jonathan Moulds, president of Bank of America for Europe and Asia.
"It think it's been about four and a half years that I've been playing it, the first year of which was a battle of trying to get to know and get to control the instrument," Nicola said. "That's the key of a great violin – it doesn't simply just do exactly what you mean, it adds something and it sort of speaks back to you. It almost becomes a dialogue between you and the instrument. I think that amount of character coming from the violin was something I struggled with a little bit in the beginning, but I really developed the strength to control it."
Nicola was born in Ayrshire, Scotland of Italian heritage and began playing the violin because her older sister, Stephanie, had fallen in love with the fiddle and spent four years begging their non-musical parents for lessons.
"So when I was four and she was eight, we began playing together," Nicola said. "But my parents aren't musicians at all, there was no classical music in our family, so it was really due to my sister's perseverance on that front."
She spent five years studying with Suzuki method before she tried out for the Yehudi Menuhin School, where she began studying with Natasha Boyarskaya shortly after her 10th birthday.
"I was very lucky that I had a teacher who taught me so much and inspired me from the word go," Nicola said. "She was a Russian violin teacher who was very strict,; she definitely demanded a lot of high-standard practice and work. But I was just so happy in that environment because it was what I'd always wanted." She studied there for about five years.
After leaving the Menuhin school, she started studying with a Polish teacher, Maciej Rakowsky, and things started happening very fast. This was when she entered the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition.
"The competition spans for around a year's time, so you're auditioning for the first round in May and the final of the competition isn't until May the following year," Nicola said. "A lot can happen in a year, and a lot did happen that year. IMG Artists had come to various performances in the UK, and following that, I began working with them."
She began to perform many, many concerts and put out recordings – she had a six-recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon and by the time she was 21 her concerts numbered more than 100 a year. At that point, she decided to step back.
"It was just a re-focus on how I was going to plan my schedule in the future, and it came after a period of time of extreme, intense performances, one after another, when I was tired and felt sort of catching up with myself rather than really on top of everything," Nicola said. "I wasn't entirely happy with how everything was going and how I felt in general. So it was a decision that came from that experience -- and one that I'm very grateful I took. It's something I'm trying to continue all the time: a re-focus on how much I should be performing, what sort of repertoire, and at what time -- to make sure that I'm really in control. It's a huge thing, to learn to do, especially for me. I have no close family in the industry who knew about this sort of thing."
There's no handbook on how to be a touring soloist, "but I think a lot of solo violinists do have a sort of network from a very young age, of persons that really understand the industry how it should work," Nicola said. "It's something I really had to learn for myself – which has been great, in some ways. I think it pushed me to learn more, even quicker.
If she had to give advise to a young, aspiring soloist? "Never listen to people giving you examples of other violinists or of other soloists, examples that put you under pressure to feel that you should be capable of a certain amount," Nicola said. "We all have different capacities for how much we can top-perform and how much we can cope with, and I think the key is just to try to learn as quickly as possible about yourself and about what your limits are, and never feel under pressure to live up to other people's expectations."
That said, "for me to give the advice to 'go slowly' would be slightly hypocritical because that's not really what I did the first two years of my performing career. I don't regret taking the options that I did; it gave me so much experience, and I managed to pull through," Nicola said. "But I would say to balance that with a real assessment of how much you feel you can cope with and be slightly more on the cautious side."
* * * Here is a 2009 video clip of Nicola Benedetti playing Vaughan Williams' 'The Lark Ascending.'
Nicola said that Stephanie plays in a quartet, so yes!
Not entering this contest --- I already have all of her CDs, including this one :-)
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