Nicola Benedetti was just 16 when she won the prestigious BBC Young Musician of the Year competition. But in this case, the child prodigy didn’t flame out. Instead, the Scottish violinist, now 31, went on to become one of the leading soloists on the international classical circuit. She plays regularly with leading orchestras in the United Kingdom and Europe. Here in the United States, she has made guest appearances with the Chicago Symphony, San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic, among others.
Benedetti is much more than just a star player, known for her charisma and ability to reach beyond the core classical audience. She’s also a tireless proselytizer and teacher, constantly leading workshops and master classes or initiating school visits in the United Kingdom and beyond. Last year alone, she reached more than 2,000 young people and 500 teachers through a combination of these efforts.
So when the Schubert Club was seeking to appoint its first-ever featured artist for the 2018-19 season — “a musician who would bring something more than simply great musicianship,” said artistic director Barry Kempton — Benedetti was a shoo-in candidate.
After kicking off her residency with a gorgeous concert in October, Benedetti returns to the Twin Cities this week for two Ordway performances featuring a new work specially written for her by jazz trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis.
She also has a packed education schedule: visiting middle-schoolers at Minneapolis’ Folwell School, a performing arts magnet, and coaching string players from Minnesota Youth Symphonies.
Reached by phone in New York, Benedetti spoke about the jazz-classical fusion in Marsalis’ new piece, her work in education and a recent recognition from the queen of England.
Q: Last time you were in the Twin Cities you played at Aria in Minneapolis. Is the choice of venues becoming more important in classical music?
A: I think variety is good. Classical music used to be more ad hoc. It used to take place in people’s living rooms, community spaces or pretty much anywhere you could get people together. The formalization of music-making into extremely expensive concert spaces is a much more recent thing.
Q: Do you play differently depending on the space?
A: Yes. To a fault, I’m hypersensitive to my surroundings and for whom I’m playing. Just recently I’ve done a few more performances than usual with amateur orchestras or in multiuse spaces, where the gathering of people is a little more authentic and informal. And in those spaces you feel a compulsion to tell the story of the music incredibly clearly and convincingly in your playing. Generally, more alternative venues bring a kind of directness out of my music-making that I am growing to like more and more.
Q: You do a huge amount of education work with young people. Why do you spend so much time on this?
A: Well, I’ve been doing it since I was 15! And once you start doing something like that — and you have an aptitude for it — you’re viewed as an open door by people looking for your time and support, people who run local orchestras or charities, people who teach in their local schools. For me, there’s a sacred element to music that makes it all the more important that it’s taught in a way that captures its strongest qualities. And I find it’s not often taught that way.
Q: What do you personally get from the process of teaching?
A: Pure and utter exhaustion! But I’m also extremely emotional and deeply affected by the experience of doing workshops, teaching children. I suppose it comes from when I was a child. When I thought something was amazing, I immediately wanted everyone else to try it. There’s a side of my personality that’s desperate to share.
Q: Have you changed much as a teacher over the years?
A: Yes, I’m less gung-ho than I was in my early 20s, when I thought that if everyone could learn to play in the same way then the world would be a much better place. Today I’m far more sensitive to the diversity of people’s individual wills and abilities. But I still have the same enthusiasm and energy.
Q: You’re playing a new piece called “Fiddle Dance Suite” by Wynton Marsalis this week. How would you describe it?
A: The piece is very typical of Wynton’s understanding of the Celtic tradition and the African-American tradition. He is quite uniquely placed in his understanding of those two worlds. And this piece constantly straddles the two. [Known for his cross-genre collaborations, Juilliard-educated Marsalis has won Grammys for his jazz and classical recordings.] It’s a suite with a variety of dances. It has a lot of components people can relate to and recognize rhythmically and harmonically, and a beautiful sense of storytelling. The St. Paul performances will be the U.S. premiere.
Q: You’ve worked a lot in the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Do attitudes toward the arts differ in the two countries?
A: There is incomparably more financial support for arts institutions in the U.K. from the government. That shortfall is made up here in the U.S. by private donors. One different thing here is the built-up presence of orchestras and their music directors in the cities. I would say a higher percentage of the general public know of their existence and are aware of them than in the U.K.
Q: You were just named a CBE [Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, one rank below damehood/knighthood] in the queen of England’s New Year Honours List. That’s a pretty big deal, isn’t it?
A: Yes. Although, on an emotional level, I’m always slightly loath to feel too much sense of achievement when granted some kind of honor. Classical music can be slow-paced, long-form and not always easy to understand. That’s what I represent. That it’s being celebrated is a wonderful thing, in such a public arena that people hear about and want to talk about. I’m extremely optimistic and grateful for that.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.