Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Violinist Nicola Benedetti


Nicola Benedetti: Tchaikovsky and Bruch Concertos

Although she’s only 23, Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti is already a veteran in the classical music world. Since winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 2004 at age 16, she has performed throughout Europe and North America and has recorded five CDs of music ranging from Mozart and Vaughan Williams to living composers like James MacMillan and John Tavener.

Her latest disc of the beloved Tchaikovsky and Bruch concertos, which she performs with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Jacob Hra, has just been released; and she has just completed a short recital tour of the U.S., playing scintillating sonatas by Prokofiev and Strauss, Chausson’s lovely Poeme and a MacMillan piece. While in New York preparing for her tour—which included a wonderfully intimate “sneak preview” of her recital program—Benedetti discussed her career, her recordings and playing the music she loves best.

Kevin Filipski: After several recordings of contemporary or less familiar works, what’s behind the decision to record two of the most well-known violin concertos, by Tchaikovsky and Bruch?
Nicola Benedetti: It wasn’t a big decision, it’s just that I’d done so many albums that could be spoken of from so many angles—a new work, an unusual combination, or a concerto plus smaller pieces. I’d never done two straight concertos, so I just wanted to do one disc of really well-known concertos that I’d had a great experience performing already. I had toured with the orchestra and conductor, so it was a perfect setup for me to do it. But I most likely will go back to the kind of discs I’ve done before.

KF: Do you have a preference for contemporary or more established pieces and composers?
NB: I love doing modern music, I loved working with Tavener and MacMillan and found them to be some of the most memorable experiences I’ve had as a musician so far. And I soon will want to prioritize that music again. It’s a totally different mindset with a living composer. In a sense, what’s really shocking is how much more the composer wants you to do: he really wants you to have your voice with his piece. Not every composer is the same, obviously, but it’s refreshing to see how open he is to my ideas and how much respect he has for the mind of the person playing his music. I haven’t done as much modern music in the past two years as I’d like to have done because I’ve been performing more of the standard repertoire that I didn’t do much of before. I learned the standards when I was younger but I really haven’t been performing them that much. I would say that every now and again I got through these plans when I want to focus on certain areas of music. I would say that, probably about a year and half from now, I will start to explore as much new music as I can. I always try to keep up to date and stay aware of new composers and keep up with new works to be performed. I’d like to commission a chamber piece, like a piano trio.

KF: How do you approach performing such well-known works as the ones on your new disc?
NB: It can mess with your psyche a little bit before recording these pieces because you can’t ignore the many incredible recordings made already. I wanted to really be as honest and heartfelt as I could with them and try to demonstrate my connection in a very natural sense. I wanted to banish the whole “let’s have a totally new approach to these pieces and come up with something different” mentality. In a subconscious manner from older recordings and performances I’ve heard, there’s no way they could not influence me, but it’s a real challenge for performers today because we hear everything. You’d have to lock yourself in a room not to hear the hundreds of interpretations available, whereas I think 50 years ago performers could be more extreme in their interpretations because they weren’t influenced by so much diversity around them. It’s definitely a challenge for today’s interpretations not to be drawn into others’ interpretations. So there has to be a balance, I think.

KF: For your short recital tour in the U.S., you’re playing sonatas by Prokofiev and Strauss. Do you prefer live chamber music or concertos with an orchestra?
NB: It all depends on what repertoire you’re playing if you love the music. The Prokofiev and Strauss are both unbelievable sonatas. The Strauss sonata is so explosive and romantic and it has a very instant appeal for the audience. It’s a sonata I feel as an answer to Franck’s sonata, but it doesn’t have that level of popularity, which is odd. It’s definitely one of the best sonatas out there, showing off all sorts of colors. Strauss packs in just about everything one could pack into a 30-minute sonata. And the Prokofiev is my favorite of his two sonatas, even though it’s played less. It’s one of his strongest chamber music works. I love playing pieces that are not the most musically obvious works and have a lot of ambiguity. In a recital, it’s a chance to introduce these kinds of pieces and play something different, giving me a chance to take people on a journey of different emotions. With concerto playing, it’s different—you’re playing for less time, and the solo lines in concertos are a single, quite consistent, character.

KF: You do a lot of music education work with children. Is it difficult getting them to enjoy and appreciate music in a world of short attention spans, iPods, texting, Facebook, etc.?
NB: Not really, I think classical music will survive forever, but it is a challenge—because classical music takes concentration, time, attention and focus. But my experience with children is that it’s no problem if you tell them that it will be fun, if you get their attention and show them that it will be enjoyable. It’s a different sort of approach: if you say the right things and pay attention to the environment, like the acoustics and the lighting. After the first 20 seconds, they’re really focused, so I’m not worried.

KF: Any certain works you’re dying to play?
NB: My “want” list is absolutely endless. The difficulty in this profession is how you’re going to feel about certain pieces a couple of years down the line because you have to book recording sessions so far ahead. If it doesn’t take place for another year or two, I can be quite changeable in how I feel towards my repertoire. Sometimes you book something for a concert and you get there and think, “But I prefer this piece now, why did I agree to do this other one?” There’s no way of predicting that. For this CD, I took the middle ground of what concertos I felt really good with and felt comfortable with and enjoyed performing. I think that’s what I’ll do over the next couple years, decide which concertos are really connecting with me on a constant basis. That didn’t really answer your question, I know, but anything else I would say would be a total guess!

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