Meet Nicola Benedetti

Nicola Benedetti smiling

What do you think defines the American sound?

The American sound is both complex and contentious, because it’s a country with such a hard-fought history of identities. And all those identities have shown up in music – in very small, subtle shifts of the bend of a note or the choice of a note, a rhythm, a texture, instrumentation. All of these things have historic connotations and moments in time where they were separated, where they were influenced by each other, where they came together.

It’s the rub of all the differences that creates something that is the beauty of life and the excitement of life and the diversity of life.

Tell us about having a concerto written for you by Wynton Marsalis

The experience of working alongside Wynton in the creation of his violin concerto was life changing. You can’t spend time with him and not learn lots of things about lots of things. He’s the most multi-dimensional and curious person and is on a permanent quest of studying and discovery.

To take an example, he’s fascinated by Celtic fiddling – Scots and Irish fiddling, but also the Afro-Celtic fiddle tradition, which is one that is not so known. There’s a dedication in the score of the concerto to Francis Johnson, who was an African-American fiddler.

If I close my eyes and think of the piece, it’s awash with colour and real diversity of sound and texture and culture.

How did the piece come about?

I went to see Wynton’s Swing Symphony performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. It’s his first major symphonic work that puts together a full symphony orchestra and a full jazz band. And I had never seen a new composition received with that amount of success and love. The depth of what had happened on stage – I had never been to an experience like that in my life. Wynton had already wanted to write something for solo violin, but after seeing that, I basically set about a relentless campaign for about two years until he finally agreed to write a violin concerto.

How much input did you have? Apparently, you asked for it to be harder?

When I received the first draft of the violin part, I think it was movement one and two, I asked if he would make it as virtuosic and complex as possible. That is part of the enjoyment and challenge for any violin soloist, you want it to look like something you don’t think you’re going to be able to play, a mountain you can’t climb. There’s a sort of sportsmanship to it. He was thrilled with that challenge, to make it as tricky as possible.

What can audiences expect to hear in this piece?

There is certainly thematic material that sounds like a tune. And there’s also quite a bit of humour through the concerto. The second movement is a burlesque, and there’s all sorts of whistling, a macabre type of sound, really rhythmic, using unusual metres. In terms of timing, it’s very virtuosic for the violin. He asks the orchestra to do certain things that are unusual, but that are historically fairly usual for people to do, like clapping and stomping and creating different textures in that way.

The third movement is a blues, which takes you through a lot of different areas of your life experience. [It evokes] being in what is essentially an African-American church environment, where I take on the role of the preacher speaking to the congregation, a very intimate, almost seductive dialogue between the violin and the cello section.

And the last movement is a hootenanny, an absolute raucous back-and-forth kind of battle / party between violin and the orchestra. And in the end, we do close the work together, we come together in a shared voice.

Watch the full Q&A on the Philharmonia YouTube channel here.

Nicola Benedetti features in our concerts on Wednesday 8 November and Thursday 9 November, tickets from £15.

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