Nicola Benedetti’s Solid Foundation

Lockdown has forced violinist NICOLA BENEDETTI to adapt to new ways of working, and it’s not all bad, she tells Keith Bruce

It was just a few days ahead of her return to live work that Nicola Benedetti and I talked on the phone, so a question about how she has coped with lockdown, and a complete halt to her usually hectic concert performance schedule, was really the only way to begin.She pondered for a moment, never a woman to give an off-the-cuff or unconsidered reply.“It’s been mixed, really. I am actually very busy at the moment, with a lot of different stuff going on. But it has been a mix of some quieter times and some much more intense times with all the education stuff that I’ve been doing.”

In fact it was within a few weeks of concert halls shutting their doors that the integration of the violinist’s professional career and the work of the Benedetti Foundation which she established to bolster music education began, as had always been scheduled. As the first step toward the launch of her latest Decca album, Elgar, featuring the Violin Concerto with the London Philharmonic and Vladimir Jurowski, she led her young students, wherever they were, through a party-piece performance of the composer’s Salut d’Amour, one of his best known tunes. Her own version, with pianist Petr Limonov, was released as a promotional single from the album and the sheet music was available for student violinists to download. A series of “Learn with Nicky” YouTube videos completed the package.

At the start of this year the Foundation took its potentially life-changing operation out on the road for the first time, with hundreds of young people galvanised into taking the learning of their instrument seriously by the charismatic presence of Nicky and her hand-picked team of dynamic cohorts. At the same time Benedetti had made it clear that this work was going to be a priority for her, and her availability for orchestral concert engagements and the learning of new repertoire would be adjusted to accommodate that.With her live bookings cancelled to the end of the year because of COVID-19, like those of every other musician, and any online behind-closed-doors work a matter of complete rethink once that even became possible, it turned out to be a back-to-the-drawing-board moment anyway.

As far as the work of the Foundation was concerned, she says, “it sort of solidified what we had wanted to do anyway; it just propelled us to do it quicker.

“We were always wanting to move things online, and have a really significant online presence, and it was almost as if we were gifted an opportunity to push forward with that. The content of what we do has not been changed at all, but the numbers have grown massively and quite quickly. We are very happy about that and surprised by how little compromise there has been on quality – we are just seeing a lot more people.

“The setting up of an online structure that is functional and works well – we had to do all that very quickly. Our whole ethos was of year-round advocacy and communication with all sorts of different charities, individuals, schools, teachers and students, but then we have our workshops. These are explosive events that have the potential to be quite life-changing for people.

“They are very much seen as one-off things, but in the last two months we’ve been running those on almost a daily basis, communicated with almost 12,000 young musicians and taught them directly. But we will be going back to our live workshops, it is just a case of when. There is no question that it will happen.”As far as the album release was concerned, she thinks the coronavirus epidemic made little difference.

“So much of an album release is done remotely anyway. Fewer interviews happen in person, so the feeling of that wasn’t all that different. For the release of an album, especially an orchestral one, it is very rare that you’ll have a ‘launch event’ moment.”Having those legions of young Elgar players can’t have hindered its prospects, and the album went straight to number one on the classical charts on release, at a time of Decca label dominance of the top ten. Benedetti, however, seems a little sceptical about what that means in terms of real listeners, and sales. She had been due to play the concerto often over the summer.

“I was really sad not to play the Elgar in Edinburgh, and at the Proms and in Europe on tour. I always find it difficult to gauge the success of things in terms of numbers of clicks or likes and views. How in-depth are people listening to something? It’s a real shame we are not doing that tour – then it would really be selling!”

When live music began to happen again, Benedetti was, characteristically, in the first wave of players testing the water. She was part of the limited season of live BBC Proms performances at an audience-free Royal Albert Hall, playing baroque music with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and as soloist on a streamed session from the Philharmonia, playing Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. So when Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili was unable to play that virtuoso violin showcase at the Last Night of the Proms through illness, Benedetti stepped in at the last minute and stole the show.

Shortly after that the violinist was in Scotland to work with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on a condensed approximation of how that ensemble’s season was supposed to open.The SCO’s barn-storming opener at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall and then Glasgow City Halls, backed by investment managers Quilter Cheviot, was to have been Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, preceded by Bruch’s First Violin Concerto and opening with John Adams’s The Chairman Dances. Instead there is an online concert performance of the Bruch, billed as the Quilter Cheviot Benedetti Concert, filmed and recorded behind closed doors at Perth Concert Hall, and first broadcast at the time the Usher Hall concert was due to begin on Thursday September 24.

“Some orchestras and concert halls were very quick just to cancel an entire project and didn’t enter into those secondary discussions about what’s going to be in its place, but that was never the case with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra,” says Benedetti. “They always were looking at what else they could do and how else they could do it. Obviously to have the opportunity to produce a concert is great and I’m sure they’ll do an excellent job of getting it out to all their patrons and supporters, so that even if there is nobody in the room, people will be able to enjoy the concert in another way.”

As it happened, she was the last guest to appear with the orchestra before the shutters came down, playing and directing the Mendelssohn Concerto in a programme of Mendelssohn and Mozart with violist Lawrence Power in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen in March.

“We had just done the Mendelssohn Concerto before lockdown, and I played the Sinfonia Concertante for the first time, and I enjoyed that week so much. I feel like I had a bit of a rebirth in my relationship with the Mendelssohn Concerto through my experience with the SCO.”

When we spoke, before the SCO rehearsals and filming, the violinist was anticipating a similar experience with the Bruch, and her first collaboration with Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev did indeed deliver a delightfully fresh and vibrant interpretation of that often-played work.

Readjustment, one way or another, is certainly the order of the day, and like many people, Benedetti sees dangers in the post-COVID landscape as well as opportunities she is keen to exploit.

“There are individuals and smaller organisations – or indeed larger organisations that have been very successful in managing their finances thus far and are therefore not prime candidates for rescue packages from the Arts Council or Creative Scotland – that are at risk. To get through this period without any casualties is highly unlikely, but it is an opportunity for people to refine themselves and double down on their fight for their existence and their worth.

“This has been an eye-opener for everybody, and lots of people have made life adjustments that they won’t give up now. I think for me there’s been a massive appreciation for time spent with family, and it’s a gift for me to see how much it is possible to do from your home.

“It’s also been interesting for me to see that everybody says you have to plan a concert two years in advance and suddenly we’re seeing that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. Next year still looks like it did on my schedule, but of course I’ve no idea how much of that will actually stay. Anything I am doing now has been a recent invitation, put together within the last month or so. It’s a whole new way of working.”