When Alexander the Great reached the greatest point of his empire, he reportedly wept because there were no new worlds to conquer. Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti might be forgiven for feeling the same after becoming the first classical musician in two decades to break into the UK top 20 pop chart last month.
Just turned 27, Benedetti has scaled remarkable musical heights. At eight she was concertmaster of the National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain and at 15 won the United Kingdom Brilliant Prodigy competition, before launching into a breathtaking solo career combined with a prominent role as advocate for and exponent of children’s musical education.
Despite her achievements, Benedetti says: “I don’t feel I’ve really arrived anywhere. Anything that is so historic like classical music, it’s just overwhelming. The more you learn, the more there is to learn, and I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I’ve reached the end.”
She first broke into the pop charts with The Silver Violin, a celebration of classical composers in film – especially Korngold and Shostakovich – in 2012, reaching No. 32. In July she climbed to No. 18 (and top spot in the classical chart) with Homecoming: a Scottish Fantasy, combining the fantasy by Bruch with traditional Scottish songs and folk music.
The last classical musicians to reach the pop top 20 were violinists Vanessa Mae in 1995 and Nigel Kennedy in 1989.
Now she is in Melbourne to play the Beethoven violin concerto in three concerts on September 12, 13 and 15 with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and principal guest conductor Diego Matheuz, who like Benedetti is a passionate advocate for educating children in music. Matheuz grew up with the Venezuelan Sistema, a social movement designed to rescue children from the poverty cycle by teaching them to play in orchestras.
Benedetti has joined forces before with Matheuz in Caracas, Amsterdam, London and Venice, and finds him a sensitive and passionate collaborator. “He’s one of those musicians who is obviously moved by the music as he’s conducting it, which is actually quite rare,” she says.
The pair have discussed the Sistema in detail. Benedetti is the official “big sister” of the Scotland Sistema, and devotes a lot of time and energy to various children’s projects, from workshops for 200 budding violinists to lobbying the government, from supporting campaigns to preserve music education funding to lecturing on the importance of creativity in schools.
Why does it matter? “The list of its importance is absolutely endless. If you start with the discipline of actually learning to play an instrument, that can allow you a life skill you can apply to absolutely anything,” Benedetti says.
“People say you can develop that kind of discipline through classroom activities or sport, but there’s something about the relentlessness and solitary element of learning to play an instrument – and also the ownership of your sound at the end of it. You know that the work you did you are solely responsible for, and that sound is you, it’s a reflection of your personality.”
Further, she says, allowing young people to express themselves musically permeates every other part of their lives. Learning to listen to themselves – playing their parts correctly and in tune – and to the others, matching tempo and dynamics, is a skill they will apply subliminally all their lives.
Using a language without words together provides an intense community-binding experience, and builds hope and a sense of achievement. “It’s a hugely liberating and uplifting experience.”
While in Melbourne, Benedetti will get involved with the MSO’s own Sistema project, the Pizzicato Effect, with Meadows Primary School in Broadmeadows.
The Beethoven concerto is often regarded as the pinnacle of a violinist’s repertoire, and Benedetti finds him the most moving composer, along with Brahms and Shostakovich. “I’m not talking on any intellectual or analytical level, I mean the overwhelming emotional pull I feel with Beethoven.”
The biggest challenge for any musician is the storytelling, depth and nuance, she says. “So with something like the Beethoven concerto, I am trying to understand just a fraction of what Beethoven was trying to convey, and the view he had of the world.”
Seeing the work in such holistic and philosophical terms takes great mental and physical energy, but she believes that in “uplifting” herself she will bring the audience too.