Interview with Nicola Benedetti: Wynton Marsalis's New Violin Concerto

July 20, 2016, 1:18 PM · Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti has a new concerto in her repertoire: a violin concerto written for her by American jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

Marsalis's "Concerto in D" for violin and orchestra -- described as a virtuoso-level mix of American music and its myriad influences -- is making its way across the world, with Benedetti front and center. The piece is in four movements: I. Rhapsody, II. Rondo Burlesque, III. Blues, and IV. Hootenanny.

Marsalis and Benedetti
Composer and jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and violinist Nicola Benedetti. Photo by John Devlin.

Its American premiere took place last week with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia and its West Coast premiere with the Los Angeles Symphony will take place July 28 at the Hollywood Bowl. Benedetti will play the work on the east coast on October 27 and 29 at the Kennedy Center, with the National Symphony Orchestra; then in Germany in November, with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. (See her concert schedule here.) The piece was co-commissioned by Ravinia, the LA Phil, National Symphony Orchestra Washington, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra, which premiered the work last November.

Benedetti and Marsalis met 12 years ago at the Academy of Achievement annual international summit and have been friends ever since. You could say that the idea for the concerto started growing from then - or maybe before. But Nicola started "gently presenting the idea" of a violin concerto during their phone conversations, starting about five years ago.

Marsalis, who is managing and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, is no stranger to classical music; he has recorded quite a number of classical works and talks frequently about growing up listening to classical music. Benedetti is an enthusiastic supporter of new music and energetic advocate for the art - not to mention a long-time fan of Marsalis's work.

I spoke over the phone last week with Nicola about the concerto and her role in helping it come to life.

Laurie: Where did this idea of a violin concerto from Wynton Marsalis come from?

Nicola: From a lot of mutual discussions, starting years and years ago. Wynton has had a near-life-long interest in the violin and the fiddle.

Laurie: I didn't know that!

Nicola: Yes, and Celtic music and all the various American traditions. I met him when I was 17, and from the beginning he was always reeling off names of different violinists that he'd been to see. He's attended so many rehearsals and concerts of various classical soloists, sat with different conductors during violin soloist rehearsals -- he's just always been interested in the violin.

So I don't think it would have only taken my encouragement for him to write a violin concerto, I think it's something he quite likely would have done anyway. He would say that all of his compositions are quite personal; it's usually a single person or some particular thing that motivates him to write something -- especially as large-scale as this, something that requires so much time and effort.

This project has been as personal as all of his large-scale compositions. We've collaborated very closely on pretty much everything to do with the piece. For him, obviously all of the specific violin technical challenges presented a big learning curve, to get to know the instrument much more intimately. But we also spoke about things as broad as what feelings we want the audience to be left with, what kind of experience are they going to have, the form of each movement -- so many things. There was nothing that he didn't consult me about. So it's been an interesting experience.

Laurie: I bet! How did you communicate throughout this process? Did you talk over Skype, did you play for him? You were in two different countries probably for most of the time....

Nicola: We got together when we could, but most of it was -- not Skype actually, just over the phone. Also, he and his copyist would e-mail pictures. He writes everything by hand. so he would write out, let's say, six lines of music. Then he'd take a photo of that and then send it to me. Then I would be trying to read this handwriting from a picture, and I would have to call and say, for example, "On the fourth line, third bar, it's not possible to get from that note to that note in this tempo..." Specific things like that!

Laurie: I read somewhere that you asked for the piece to be harder, after seeing the first draft. Is that true?

Nicola: Yes, that is pretty much true. The first take, the first version of let's say about half of the first movement, was -- the way I've put it to him was, because 99 percent of the time I play repertoire that was written for solo violin, my largest experience is in playing things that take a long time to learn. That is where I'm most comfortable: getting something where I look at it for the first time and think, 'This is unplayable,' and I'm forced to spend hours and hours trying to work out how, physically, I can get my fingers and mind around this music. So that's what I was trying to say to him.

I also sent him a lot of forwards and violin parts of pretty much every legendary violin concerto that's in the repertoire now. One time when I was passing through New York, I went to one of the music shops there and I just bought him about 50 scores.

Laurie: What scores did you get him?

Nicola: From Bruch to Mozart to Vivaldi, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, possibly Elgar or Dvorak, I can't remember, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Brahms -- just everything. He's a studier; I've never come across somebody that will study something so consistently. So he just studied all of those scores.

Laurie: That sounds like a very intense process!

Nicola: The process wasn't without its stresses; I hadn't necessarily counted on that much involvement from me. So my schedule wasn't always totally lenient -- come conversations would last two hours, of him going through just one page of music, asking me what double stops are possible, with every single note. That kind of thing takes a lot of patience!

Laurie: Have you had other things commissioned for you?

Nicola: I've worked with John Tavener, James MacMillan, Arlene Sierra and Mark-Anthony Turnage.

Laurie: So those processes were different?

Nicola: Oh entirely different. All of those, I just received the composition once it was complete.

Laurie: Maybe it's the collaborative nature of jazz. Is Marsalis' concerto a jazzy piece?

Nicola: It is, somewhat. The third movement is called "The Blues," so you can't really say that's purely jazz, but it's certainly an element that is utilized in jazz constantly. It's certainly not classical. The second movement is in a Rondo-Burlesque form. I wouldn't say it's jazz at all, although you have all kinds of tributes to ragtime and a lot of syncopated rhythms. The second movement is just crazy violin writing, crazy-fast as well, and very complicated. But if you were to slow down everything I play, if you were to play it five times slower, you would hear plenty of blues idiom in the melodic language, and also melodically you would hear what you may associate with jazz. The first movement is very rhapsodic, it starts with an opening melody that is very substantial. The first time there's any faster music is with a light, distant habanera rhythm underneath me playing, I'm playing something that sounds almost improvised, something that's fluttering above a melody, like stardust. And then the bulk of the movement is almost like a nightmare sequence in the middle, which has a march component to it and a lot of angular and quick-changing mode that we're in. The end of the first movement is also like a march but early-American, almost like a marching band would play, quite rustic. It's not intended to sound too polished, so that's kind of a challenge. Then the last movement is called "Hootenanny" and it starts with a stomp-clap -- it's nothing that I've ever come across in a violin concerto!

Laurie: I understand you also have a new recording of Shostakovich and Glazunov Concertos that just came out.

Nicola: The Shostakovich lies at the heart and soul of a lot of violinists -- It's the kind of piece where you count the days until you feel ready to record it. I'm most moved by hardcore, tragic repertoire, so it was just a question of time: when I was going to have the opportunity and feel ready to record. Putting Shostakovich with the Glazunov Concerto, there's a lot of connection on paper: two Russian composers, works that were written just 40 years apart, one composer even taught the other. But sonically and emotionally, the concertos couldn't be further apart. So it's definitely a CD of two contrasting works, rather than me trying to bring out their similarities.

Laurie: I heard that you had pneumonia earlier this year, how are you doing?

Nicola: Oh, that was fun and games.

Laurie: With so much traveling, doing more than 100 concerts a year -- it must have been very difficult.

Nicola: Not that it would be fun in any circumstances, but because I was so far away from home, it was a little challenging. I was in Vancouver, so the second of my concerts there I had to cancel, and many subsequent performances. It was pretty horrible.

It can be a lonely and challenging life sometimes, but of course the rewards way outweigh the downside. The music itself is in an entirely different league to anything else I experience in my life, in terms of gratification and fulfillment. But even without the music, the lifestyle is really not so bad, it's nothing you can complain about, to travel the world and meet so many people.

* * *

Wynton Marsalis, Nicola Benedetti and conductor Cristian Macelaru talk about “Concerto in D” for violin and orchestra before its American premiere last week in Chicago:

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July 22, 2016 at 06:23 PM · Will this work be recorded? Or did I miss that info?

July 22, 2016 at 10:35 PM · They have not mentioned recording it -- Wynton revised it quite a lot after the London performance and I get the idea that it's still in flux, so I'm guessing they might wait until it feels settled first!

July 23, 2016 at 01:50 AM · I've got my ticket! I'm very excited! I can't wait to hear it live at the Hollywood Bowl

July 23, 2016 at 01:18 PM · I notice that the list of composers whose music she sent him doesn't include Paganini or Sibelius, although as a trumpeter he will understand harmonics.

Are these omissions accidental, or did she not really send him the Sibelius or Paganini? If I was after something more challenging, Paganini would be the first thing I'd send, but if I wanted musical depth as well, I'd go for Sibelius.

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