interview with Nicola Benedetti: Baroque 'Italia' and Sistema Scotland

January 28, 2012, 6:10 PM · Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti has had a busy year, with a schedule that has her criss-crossing the globe to play with London Symphony Orchestra at the Enescu Festival in Bucharest, the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Zurich Chamber, Cincinnati Symphony, Detroit Symphony and Hallé orchestras…

On Monday she will perform a release concert at Le Poisson Rouge in New York for her new album of Baroque music called Italia, then she will fly across the United States to perform the Bruch Concerto Thursday, Friday and Saturday with the Pacific Symphony in Orange County, California.

I spoke to her over the phone about her new exploration of Baroque music, about playing with a Baroque bow, and also about her involvement with Sistema Scotland, the El Sistema-inspired program that is taking shape in her native Scotland.

Nicola Benedetti
Decca / Simon Fowler

Laurie: It can't be the easiest thing to dive right in and make a recording of Baroque music, with all the competing approaches. There are the authentic performance people, the period instrument people, the Romantic performance tradition … I wondered what kinds of things you explored in preparing for this album, and how you became comfortable with your own approach.

Nicola: I approached it by trying as much as I could, and being as experimental as I dared. Then I stripped it back to what I was comfortable with at this stage. I don't spend the majority of my time playing Baroque music -- or playing with the Baroque bow, Baroque violin and gut strings.

I really learned a lot from a wonderful British Baroque violinist, Rachel Podger. The more you're exposed to really great Baroque specialists, the more you'll find that the overwhelming lesson is how free you can be, how experimental you can be, and how unrestricted you should feel, playing that style of music. Yes, they will tell you that using a little less vibrato is great, or that using a different kind of bow and more bounce in your stroke is great. But in actual fact, any sort of dos and don'ts about how to play this music -- it's sort of a crazy notion. So it was just a case of finding my own voice with the music.

Also, it was very important for me to pick the right repertoire, for my first Baroque disc: repertoire I was totally convinced by, nothing that I was feeling lukewarm towards. You have to have a certain amount of belief, conviction and confidence in every note you're playing.

Laurie: You know, I've listened to -- and played -- a lot of Vivaldi, but I had never heard the first concerto on this disc!

Nicola: The Grosse Mogul…

Laurie: Yes, and in addition to the well-known Tartini "Devil's Trill" and Vivaldi "Summer," there are some pieces by Tartini and Veracini that are less-known. Where did you find them?

Nicola: I must have listened to a few hundred concertos, searching for the right repertoire for this disc. Within a four-month stretch, I would listen to something new every few days, trying to familiarize myself with as much as possible. I tried not to listen too much to each piece. Instead, I tried to listen to a broad spectrum of things and go with my gut reaction. I would take notes on each one. I got the scores for quite a few, took a look at them and practiced them.

That piece -- the Grosse Mogul -- is very virtuosic and very challenging. It's a kind of virtuosity that you don't really use in Romantic concerti, which is what I've played more of than anything else. So it was breath of fresh air, like learning to play a new instrument.

Laurie: What were some of the virtuoso things that were different about this kind of piece than in a Romantic concerto?

Nicola: Mainly in the cadenzas of the first and last movements: extremely high playing, always with a very short stroke. Also, I'm holding one line with another moving line. It's not really double-stops, but it sounds kind of like two voices. That kind of stroke requires different muscle movement, because the sound and the stroke need to be quite dance-like, very energetic, very uplifting. At the same time, it's actually really quite tiring to play less heavy -- in the same way that it's tiring to play pianissimo for 20 minutes.

Laurie: And you were also using a Baroque bow, right? What were some of the things you had to adjust to, using a Baroque bow?

Nicola: I tried a whole range of different Baroque bows: ones that are not so different to a modern bow, ones that were early Baroque bows and others that were mid-way between the two. In general, the Baroque bows are a little bit shorter, and the arc of the wood is not concave, it's slightly the other way; and they're a little bit lighter.

I wasn't very comfortable with a lot of the bows, until I had a lesson with Rachel, and she let me try one of her very early-Baroque style bows. She gave it to me, I started playing, and I felt, 'Okay this is weird, and this feels strange, but this one's right.' None of the bows I had tried were quite as extreme as that one, yet that was the one I felt instantly comfortable with. That's after having tried many Baroque bows over the years, and specifically while I was choosing this Baroque repertoire. It's extremely light, and it's very, very wide -- you have to tighten the bow a lot. It's a totally different instrument, altogether.

Laurie: Who made that bow? Was it made in modern times?

Nicola: It's a 1720 model, but it was made by a modern French bowmaker by the name of René-William Groppe.

Laurie: What kinds of strokes are easier to do with a Baroque bow? I've always wanted to get one, myself.

Nicola: It's not that they're easier, but if you're searching for that kind of sound, you're able to achieve it. The effect is very different, and the result is very different, especially with techniques such as playing a fast spiccato, or string crossing. I would say string crossing is probably the only thing that is actually a bit easier with a Baroque bow, simply because of the weight. It's less effort to get from the G string to the E string.

Laurie: Did it illuminate anything about how this music is written, to have that equipment?

Nicola: Definitely. Certain things start to fall into place and to make so much more sense; they have a much more natural feel and sound. A passage that would feel so unnatural with a heavy bow suddenly just rolls off the tongue -- that's kind of how it feels.

Laurie: I understand you are involved in El Sistema in Scotland. In Los Angeles, where I live, this has been big deal, with Gustavo Dudamel -- the Venezuelan system's most successful musician -- conducting the LA Philharmonic.

Nicola: I have to say that Sistema Scotland is doing astonishingly well. They have such a brilliant team in place; they are so serious about being serious about music, which to me is the key. If you're not serious about teaching music to a high standard -- and to the same standard as you would get if you were paying through your nose for the best tuition in the country -- then you're not giving them what you're promising them: a really good music education and therefore the chance to be a confident, happy, fulfilled child.

In Scotland, they've been going for four years, with 400 children now learning. They have a good number of teachers and now a music director, I'm on the board of that organization, and I go every few months to teach the kids. I also play with them, and I play for them. Last time I was there, I was sitting in the back of the orchestra! I even went to some of the homes of the kids. It's something I've taken very, very seriously, and I'm in touch with the people from Sistema Scotland all the time.

My message to them is just to be as serious as possible about making music to a high level, because if you think about any child managing to stick at playing a musical instrument, it's really tough -- even if they come from a very supportive background. It's difficult to be serious about practicing and to be motivated. Take away that supportive background, and immediately you can see how difficult it may be to stay motivated and serious about practicing. What would make a child see that as such a priority?

What is needed to keep them there is a level of music-making that is so infectious, that it replaces all the other desires that they have surrounding them. They're desperate to come into orchestra because they're making a good sound in orchestra. I think Sistema Scotland supports and understands that. That's largely the reason El Sistema has worked so fantastically well in Venezuela: very quickly these kids were actually sounding good, so they have something exciting to be involved in.

In Scotland, it's not a government-supported organization, but they have support from Creative Scotland, private sponsorship and a mixture of a lot of different donations.

Laurie: Do the kids go every day?

Nicola: It was three days a week, and now it's four days a week.

Laurie: It's wonderful to see it working. I think eventually it will work in the United States; it just takes a while, and I think the discipline aspect of it is an interesting thing that nobody was quite prepared for, with the kids.

Nicola: I've been to Venezuela, and I've seen every piece of film you can get your hands on about El Sistema, and I think an overwhelming fact is the hours those children put in. They will rehearse up to eight hours a day. They put in similar hours to what I have done, and I was working towards a solo career! We're talking about 450,000 children putting those hours in -- it's absolutely astonishing.

But you don't become good at an instrument without putting in the time. There's just no other way.

* * *

And here is a video Nicola made to promote Italia; it's mostly music and lovely Italian landscapes, and lovely Nicola!


January 31, 2012 at 01:41 AM · Thank you it this awesome interview, Laurie. My goal is to he involved in an El Sistema-type program one day. I think it is fantastic what Scotland has been able to achieve so quickly!

February 4, 2012 at 05:27 PM · I wonder if she used her Stradivarius for this recording and also gut strings... Nice article as always Laurie !!!

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