Sunday 19 November 2017

whole world in her hands

Violinist Nicola Benedetti tells Katy Harrington about balancing private life with musical success

FINDING time in Nicola Benedetti's schedule is not easy. On the day we meet at her West London flat, her first rehearsal is already running over time. As three young musicians scamper out the door, instruments in tow, a photographer, Benedetti's agent and boy-friend all arrive. It's all go, but Benedetti is unfazed by 'busy'. Her life has been like this for the past 18 months and the hectic schedule,which includes a world tour, is set to continue into this year and beyond.

For Benedetti, this is the culmination of years of hard work and determination, and she's relishing it. "I've had a long stretch of a lot of opportunity matched with the energy to take it on, and that's resulted in an incredibly packed schedule," explains the Scottish-born violinist, whose Italian parents first put a violin in her hands at age four.

Her passion for playing is matched only by a determination to educate people about classical music and bring the work she does to a wider audience. This commitment has not gone unnoticed, and last month she was awarded an MBE for her services to music and charity. "It's like having something you love very much and you want everyone to understand ... like introducing your boyfriend to your family, you want them to see what you see," she says in her dulcet Scots tones.

On the subject of boy-friends, Benedetti shares her London home with German cellist Leonard Elschenbroich. They met at the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey, where Nicola was a boarder from 10 to 15. Dating someone who understands the world of classical music helps, especially when they go for two months without seeing each other, but she wouldn't have it any other way: "I am so in love with classical music and what I do. I never want music and the violin to be out of my life. If I were with someone who required that to be pushed away, that would be a big problem for me."

Benedetti's career would be demanding enough if she merely stuck to her touring and performing commit-ments, but add in her dedication to the study of music and her mission to educate and very little time is left. "I have great friends but I barely see them," she admits. She speaks to her mother and father daily and says of her older sister (a violin teacher who plays in an orchestra and in a quartet) that they are "as close as sisters can be". Her family don't make a big deal about her success, if anything they worry if she is happy, but to Benedetti happiness is inseparable from practice and playing.

Her mission to educate is not just talk. She gives free tuition to young players all the time. After her concerts, little girls with violins turn up with their parents, eager for an impromptu lesson or to play for her.

Then there's her work with Sistema Scotland, a charity inspired by the Venezuelan El Sistema scheme. As a board member, Benedetti wants to encourage children to get involved in symphony orchestras, and to share the expertise she has been exposed to in her musical life.

In doing so, she is not afraid to get political. She has spoken out about the spending cuts on music tuition in UK schools, telling the Radio Times that young people needed a cultural identity to tackle aimlessness and to replace the vacuous celebrity culture shoved at them.

There was certainly little time for aimlessness in her own childhood. "The memory of my childhood wasn't fun and games at all," she says. Strict, controlled and serious are the words she uses. At four, she began practising a few minutes a day; by the time she was eight, she was playing two to three hours every day.

Discipline, and more specifically, self-discipline, is a phrase that Benedetti,who joins the RTE Concert Orchestra on January 24 at the National Concert Hall, returns to in conversation. She almost describes it as a lost art in today's society, and one that she wouldn't have survived without. She speaks of "discipline, endurance and the fulfilment at the bottom of your stomach having worked your way through something".

After a strict upbringing, one might expect rebellious teenage years to have followed, but even at 15 Benedetti was mature before her time. She recalls her boarding school as a place where, "You really have to know yourself if you want to succeed. The other options were losing yourself and being miserable." After six months she called her mum and told her: "I've worked out how to survive here ... you need self-discipline." There's that word again.

Self-belief has been important, too. Once a pretty young newcomer in the classical scene, Benedetti had to prove that she doesn't just look good on an album cover. "Every orchestra you play with for the first time, eyebrows are raised," she says, but now after 10 years playing with the best orchestras in the world, seven studio albums and acclaimed live performances under her belt, Benedetti has passed the test.

Along with the lonely life of a soloist on the road and the gruelling schedule, Benedetti appreciates the perks of her work. For example, the violin she plays is an early 18th-Century Stradivarius, worth about £6.3m (€7.7m), one of the world's most valuable, lent to her by banker Jonathon Moulds, a fan.

While she wants to use the wealth around her for the good of the arts, on a personal level money is "shockingly unimportant". Shopping gives her a headache, and she has never splurged on any extravagant purchases. She is fully aware of the privileges her success brings but cautions that her wealth should not be overestimated: "I'm comfortable but don't get too excited," she says with a laugh.

I suggest that, while she may not be enjoying the carefree, hedonistic days that come with your twenties, she seems very happy. She agrees: "It's pressure but not negative pressure. The things that make me happiest are feeling like I'm playing well, the fact that I'm not scared to walk on stage ... I've gone through lots of ups and downs, especially between 15 and 18, but the fact that I'm in a good place with my playing, I couldn't ask for more than that."

Her remaining goals are to go on to perform with the best musicians in the world, set up her own foundation and to maintain a sane and happy personal life – and she is determined the first two goals won't cancel out the last one.

Benedetti may be a record company's dream, but she is a star entirely of her own making. Intelligent, gifted, passionate, driven (and if beauty belongs on a list of a person's qualities, then it should be noted too), she has the world not at her feet, but firmly between her own two hands.

Nicola Benedetti joins the RTE Concert Orchestra on January 24 at the National Concert Hall.

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