Violinist Nicola Benedetti on what classical music could learn from jazz gigs

24 June 2021, 13:01 | Updated: 21 January 2022, 16:42

Violinist Nicola Benedetti launches new three-tier project 'Baroque'
Violinist Nicola Benedetti launches new three-tier project 'Baroque'. Picture: Craig Gibson

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

Violinist Nicola Benedetti speaks to Classic FM about rejecting the “sewed up and perfect” ideal of what a classical concert should be, and why the live music experience should offer more than just a live version of a recording.

This month, Scottish-Italian violin virtuoso and passionate music education ambassador, Nicola Benedetti, announced her most ambitious project yet: a marriage of a new album, a series of live concerts and her Benedetti Foundation’s Baroque Virtual Sessions, providing mass tuition to young string players.

Each segment of the three-part musical puzzle focuses on the wonders of Baroque music, and its catchy melodies and dance styles which lend so well to group music-making.

“I think by any comparison, it’s the most joyous music,” Benedetti enthuses, before stopping herself. “And I don’t mean it like, we’re always in a major key and trying to be happy. I mean it’s very conversational, and the rhythmic aspect to it is something a three-year-old would pick up on and understand.

“It’s not got that push and pull that Romantic music does, or the slightly more polite staidness that the Classical era does. It is the highest quality of entertainment, without making the word entertainment into something negative. I’m always wary of that word because something can be really entertaining and totally crap.

“But this is great quality music, but also supremely entertaining.”

Read more: Nicola Benedetti: ‘There is no more valuable position than a music teacher’

Nicola Benedetti - Baroque

‘Live music is about taking risks’

To prepare for the project, Benedetti says she has spent “hours and hours on Zoom” talking to people who have dedicated their lives to the art of Baroque playing, and historically informed practice.

Read more: 10 of the best Baroque composers

On a call yesterday, the violinist says, one early music-maker was trying to explain that “our connection to meaning as musicians is a lot less than it used to be”.

“Like, if a dance is called a ‘Sarabande’, that means a certain thing, and the people playing it would all know what that meant, and so did a lot of the audience,” Benedetti paraphrases her colleague.

“But now that connection is lessened, we resort to focusing on the things most people can tell, like: was it perfectly in tune? Was there a scratch? Did somebody not come in on the downbeat together?

“These really basic things, quite frankly, provided you’ve had all the right training, are not that hard to achieve. What is really hard to achieve is to have all of that – plus this risk-taking, giving everything you have, and really having so much heart and soul and meaning, in what you’re doing.”

Nicola Benedetti is one of the world's most in-demand violinists
Nicola Benedetti is one of the world's most in-demand violinists. Picture: Craig Gibson

Earlier this year, the trailblazing young organist and conductor Anna Lapwood argued, in an interview for Classic FM show Julian Lloyd Webber’s Rising Stars, that young musicians need to be able to make mistakes. But now, because of the way so many music organisations have had to turn to live-streaming and virtual audiences during the pandemic, those mistakes live online for months, years – maybe even forever.

Will this feeling of anxiety over mistake-making evolve, after the pandemic and all the changes it has brought to the music world, according to Benedetti?

The violinist muses: “I’m always hopeful that we will eventually dare to play differently, and we’ll also be daring the audience to want to hear things differently. To not be going to a concert with a neat little package where everything is sewed up and perfect, and you’re basically hearing a sort-of live version of the recording.

“Instead, people are listening out like ‘oh my goodness, what’s going to happen?’ – and anything could happen. And that’s great.”

Tchaikovsky's violin concerto – the second movement

‘Classical music could learn something from the jazz world’

Looking to the jazz world, Benedetti believes classical musicians and audiences could find inspiration in its total authenticity during a live performance.

“The last jazz concert I went to, Wynton [Marsalis – the great American jazz trumpeter and composer, whose Violin Concerto won Benedetti a Grammy Award in 2019] was playing, and three people didn’t come in in the right place,” Benedetti recalls.

“But he was explaining to the audience that what they just played was really hard, and so it was funny.

“They’re constantly trying to overcome something that’s really difficult to do, but they’re not really managing it because it’s really hard. And it’s the best jazz orchestra in the world saying that.

“It’s that realism and humility about we’re trying something and going for it, and let’s all enter into that together.”

Nicola Benedetti’s ‘Baroque’ will be released on Decca Classics on 16 July 2021. Eight live performances will take place with the Benedetti Baroque Orchestra at Battersea Arts Centre from 18 - 21 July. Find out more about the first Baroque Virtual Sessions here.