Nicola Benedetti: The 'classical babe' with a cause
The violinist wants to share her music with more than an elite crowd
Nicola Benedetti has had just two hours' sleep. Perched on her sofa, barefoot, in leggings and a comfy jumper, she begs me not to look at the dirty dishes piled up in her kitchen. The 25-year-old newly crowned best female artist at the Classic Brits and the youngest ever to close the Proms, is baffled. She needs me to explain something to her: just what is the appeal of the Kardashian sisters?
"My parents tell me off for naming names, so I probably shouldn't, but I will anyway," the Scottish violist says. "I saw pictures of the Kardashian sisters at Westfield [shopping centre] recently. You tell me what all those people were there for? Yes, they are beautiful girls, but there are lots of beautiful girls. That can't be it, surely? It's the most incredible example of an industry created out of being famous for being famous."
Benedetti looks genuinely confused. She can't think of a social event this year – barring three weddings – that didn't revolve around her violin: the idea that people can be celebrated for no particular talent is, to her, extraordinary.
She has played the violin from the age of four, practising for up to three hours a day by the age of eight. At 16, after studying at the Yehudi Menuhin School, she was named BBC Young Musician of the Year and offered a record contract with IMG, rumoured to be worth £1m.
Now she occupies a rare position in the classical world: admired by traditionalists, yet welcomed by reformers. Her last CD, The Silver Violin, was the first solo instrumental album in decades not only to top the classical charts, but also enter the top 30 in the pop album rankings. She will be the first classical musician to perform at T in The Park next summer – her £10m borrowed violin firmly by her side. And her upcoming Scottish tour will include works such as Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio in A minor and compositions by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, alongside projections of contemporary film.
She is dubbed a "classical babe" by the tabloids, but she is really much more of a classical evangelist. She "can't sit still knowing this music is for an elite, small crowd". But though she complains about the classical audience, which can be hostile if you "clap in the wrong place, rustle about, or show excitement", she doesn't go as far as suggesting newcomers should be invited in all at once. She insists that people "need some introductions in order to hear it the way it needs to be heard".
As a board member of Sistema Scotland, a charity that has formed a children's orchestra on the Raploch estate in Stirling, she helps to make those introductions. She has taken to inviting local young people to her shows, and while she says she doesn't want to patronise anyone, she warns them all before they come that it's not going to be "like seeing Rihanna". Asked why she goes to such efforts to spread the sound, she says: "If you think of the thing you love most, there is a natural desire to want everyone else to love it, too."
The daughter of Italian-Scottish parents, Benedetti says her upbringing was "more strict than other kids'". Her decision to start playing the violin, even at four, was taken seriously, so she was not allowed to try her hand at other activities: no art, gymnastics or riding. "My mum understood about the daily routine that it takes to be good at something, and that there's no way round it."
Now, her parents worry that she works too much. They might have a point: in the past month, the violinist has been to Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Austria and Germany. Over the next few days, she'll be performing in Stirling, with Rod Stewart, and in the Royal Variety Performance at the Albert Hall. Although she lives with her cellist boyfriend of six years, Leonard Elschenbroich, who also plays in her trio, she tells me that a few days ago they had to sit down with their diaries to "pick out dates" when they could see each other.
Disciplined as she is, there is more to the musician than her instrument. Nervous at first to bring up politics, she admits that there are "bigger things at stake than me just spending all my time practising". At the moment, her big concern is music education. On this, she says, "We are going in the wrong direction. If we cut anything, whether it be money, time or focus, in the world of creativity in education, it's not going to be just detrimental to the creative industries and culture, but it will be detrimental to a whole generation who are not getting the benefit that this side of education can give you."
Like any evangelist, Benedetti is saddened that some people don't share her passion for the cause, admitting that they "can feel intimidated by classical music, or shut out, as if it's a world they can't penetrate".
But then she stresses that there is now, more than ever, a "movement" of all the greatest classical musicians, who are "understanding... the need to communicate with their audience in ways other than what happens on the stage".
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