Her talent as a violinist is undisputed, but Benedetti made her way to the top thanks to a ferocious work ethic, and a passion for classical music that she wants a whole new generation to share.
By Chloe Fox
For the violinist Nicola Benedetti, doing the laundry is a luxury. ‘I’m back for two whole days which, for me, is like an eternity,’ she shouts over the hysterical whirring of the spin dryer in the corner of her kitchen. ‘I’m so sorry! It will stop soon. But Leonard is leaving for Bergen today and he has no socks, poor man.’
Leonard is the German cellist Leonard Elschenbroich, Benedetti’s boyfriend of six years, whose practising in the room next door provides a more soothing accompaniment to our interview.
There is something monastic about the small, light-filled west London flat that these two young giants of the classical music scene call home – uncluttered white walls, plain wooden floorboards, and not a television nor a satellite box in sight.
Nicola Benedetti, her boyfriend Leonard Eischenbroich and the Ukrainian pianist Alexei Grynyuk perform at the Bristol Proms last year PHOTO: Gobinder Jhitta
‘It’s calling to me,’ Benedetti says with a smile. She puts in an average of six hours’ practice a day, and last night, she says, she was practising until midnight. ‘If I had felt when I put my violin away that I hadn’t achieved anything, I would have woken up this morning feeling like the world was ending,’ she says, laughing.
For 26-year-old Benedetti there is no distinction between her music and herself. ‘When I’m playing the violin, it’s part of me, we are one thing,’ she says, her fingers absent-mindedly playing with the permanent sore on her collarbone, the only clue to the rigours of her profession. ‘My happiness and my confidence fluctuates absolutely according to how well I feel I’m playing.’
In the decade since she won BBC Young Musician of the Year (and was awarded an eye-watering £1 million contract with Universal for six recordings) at the age of 16, Benedetti has become one of Britain’s most successful violinists: she has had seven chart-topping classical albums (one of which, The Silver Violin, reached an unprecedented number 30 in the pop music charts) and, last year, was awarded an MBE for services to classical music.
But for all her brilliance with a violin, some couldn’t see beyond her dark-eyed, olive-skinned glamour. Almost as soon as she had won Young Musician of the Year, the backlash began. Tabloid features with headlines such as ‘Sexy Nicky bites Bach’ and ‘Will Nic air her G-string?’ became the norm for the neat-figured teenager who, despite actively steering away from the endless modelling and endorsement opportunities that came her way (as she does to this day), suddenly found herself caught up in a hungry marketing machine.
‘When you are thrown into the category I was – the category of “easy to promote” – it’s really easy to become disorientated and forget that you once had something that was only to do with your ability,’ she says. ‘I reached a point where I didn’t believe the hype. I kept asking myself whether my success was perhaps just a fabrication.’
By the time she was 18 Benedetti was struggling, playing in more than 100 concerts a year and subsequently not having nearly enough time to rehearse adequately for each performance. ‘I would walk on to a stage, grossly underprepared, and feel that I was insulting my own ability,’ she recalls. ‘Looking back on it, I do feel that some of the support I needed wasn’t necessarily there within the profession. It is extremely cut-throat.’
It was during this unhappy time that Benedetti went out for lunch with her friend and fellow violinist Alina Ibragimova, with whom she had studied at the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey. ‘She looked at me and she said, “Do you remember the things that people used to say about your playing? Well, those things haven’t disappeared. Just remember them, Nicky. Remember what you can do.’’ ’
Five years after crying her way through her first violin lesson, aged four, Nicola Benedetti (who went only because her older sister, Stephanie – now a member of the classical quartet RaVen – had begged their parents for lessons) made history by fending off 100 other hopefuls to become the youngest violinist ever to lead the National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain.
Benedetti started learning the violin aged four PHOTO: Rex
The following year, aged 10, Benedetti left her home in West Kilbride, Ayrshire, to attend the Yehudi Menuhin School (Stephanie went to Wells Cathedral School). ‘Of course I missed my family,’ she has said. ‘But, even at that young age, the most exciting thing to me was the violin.’
Aged 15, and halfway through her GCSE studies, Benedetti made the controversial decision to leave the Yehudi Menuhin School. ‘I had all these concerts in and out of school, as well as GCSEs to distract me. I really, really wanted to excel so I decided to leave so that I could concentrate on my fiddle playing.’ With the help of private tuition she passed five GCSEs the following year.
She lodged with the family of her then accompanist, cut all ties with the school and went about auditioning several new teachers. She eventually chose Maciej Rakowski, the mentor to many competition winners, under whose tutelage she won Carlton TV’s Britain’s Brilliant Prodigies competition – the year before she won the Young Musician of the Year. ‘From the moment I first met her,’ Rakowski has said, ‘I was struck by Nicola’s tremendous drive and instinct for what she needed.’
Determination is in Benedetti’s genes. When her father, Giovanni, was only 10 years old he had travelled alone from a hilltop village in Tuscany to stay with distant relations in Scotland. He didn’t see his mother for a decade. He worked his way up from nothing, founding a chain of dry-cleaners when he was 18 and then going on to develop the clingfilm dispenser that would make him a multi-millionaire.
His wife, Francesca (of Italian-Scottish parentage), had come with her family from Italy to Scotland at the age of three. Benedetti talks of how her mother has never lost a sense of gratitude for the life that Giovanni’s success has enabled. ‘She would repeat, “You have this opportunity. Neither of us did. Don’t waste it,” over and over again,’ Benedetti says. ‘She never let us take anything we had for granted.’
Benedetti has always been quick to defend her mother (who, even during the holidays, made her daughters do three hours’ practise a day before they were allowed out to play) from accusations of pushy parenting. ‘Her point was always, “If you are going to do something, you might as well do it to the best of your ability.” My mum is unbelievably pragmatic. Down-to-earth doesn’t really cover it. She has never cared about the fame and fortune of it all. To this day she will still ask me if I’ve done enough practice before a concert.’
Her father, on the other hand, cannot hide his delight at his daughters’ success. ‘He still cuts out every article,’ Benedetti says, laughing.
Benedetti (far right) with her sister, Stephanie, her mother Francesca, and her father, Giovanni, after he received the CBE in 2005 PHOTO: Heathcliff O’Malley
In 2008, with the support of her parents, the 21-year-old Benedetti decided to take back control of her career. ‘People seem to forget that, at the end of the day, I have to get up there and play the violin,’ she says. ‘I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself, let alone work with really, serious dedicated musicians that I deeply respect, if I had thought that I was doing a job that those people were not going to be happy with.’
Turning her back on the lip-glossed, wind-machined ‘classical babe’ stereotype (‘I had to disassociate as much as possible from that very unclear portrayal of me’), Benedetti shook up her management team, found two new teachers in Vienna, took two months off from performance and dramatically scaled back her concert schedule.
She also got back in touch with Leonard Eischenbroich, a fellow student from the Menuhin School with whom she had lost contact. On stage they became part of a trio, with the Ukrainian pianist Alexei Grynyuk. Off stage they fell in love. ‘Leonard understands me totally,’ she says.
In all areas of their life, the pair push each other on. ‘We are very tough with each other. We definitely clash but, at the same time, we get the best results through our different ideas.’
While Eischenbroich is a more of a purist, Benedetti has shaped her career with a populist touch. ‘I love the idea of building a bridge between two worlds,’ she says, adding how she jumped at the chance to play Vivaldi at the Scottish pop and rock festival T in the Park in 2012.
‘As long as I can play a piece of music that I think is good, I’m up for playing it anywhere,’ she says, grinning. ‘Get it out there, get it out there! That’s my mantra.’
Benedetti’s £10million Stradivarius is on loan to her from the London-based banker Jonathan Moulds PHOTO: Emma Hardy
For her new album, Homecoming: A Scottish Fantasy, Benedetti has blended two musical traditions, classical and Scottish folk, that have never before been recorded together. Alongside Max Bruch’s melancholic Scottish Fantasy she plays such well-loved classics as The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond.
‘I have a constant yearning for Scotland,’ says Benedetti, who receives a rapturous welcome whenever she returns home. ‘The music on this album comes from a very deep, emotional place. Recording it was a very moving experience.’
Nicola Benedetti’s zeal for her work is utterly infectious (‘I have been blessed – and I’m not religious, by the way – with something that I want to share. It almost feels like a calling. I know that sounds mad but it truly does’) and she is a tireless ambassador for the importance of creative education.
‘Nicky has a unique combination of talents,’ says Dr Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh and founder of Sistema Scotland, a musical programme that gives children in deprived communities the opportunity to learn an instrument and play in an orchestra. ‘Performers are not necessarily eloquent with words. She is. They are not necessarily good individual teachers. She is.’
Benedetti had been introduced to the work of El Sistema, a Venezuelan music education programme (the ‘parent’ of Sistema Scotland), when she heard the country’s youth orchestra play at the Proms in 2007. She learnt of the foundation of Sistema Scotland the following year – around the time that she was reassessing the direction in which her career was going.
She considers it a moment of serendipity. ‘I was asking myself some pretty big questions,’ she says. ‘Trying to work out what the purpose of it all was. I was thinking, “What am I here to do? What is the most positive and effective thing that I can bring to this world?” ’
When Sistema Scotland established its Big Noise orchestra in Raploch, Stirling, in 2009, Benedetti called them up. ‘She offered to come and meet and tutor the children, who of course were absolutely blown away by her,’ Holloway says. ‘But she wasn’t just coming in and saying nice, sweet gushy things. After we had been going for about a year, she started to put a bit of heat on us. Back then we were more intent on the socially transformative aspect of the work, but Nicky was adamant that we should tighten up the teaching and be more disciplined with the children.
Benedetti is involved with the Sistema Scotland music education and its Big Noise Orchestra PHOTO: Marc Marnie
‘Because of her,’ he continues, ‘we appointed a new director of music and started to really emphasise the importance of hard work. As a direct result of this we are now producing great individual performers as well as a symphony orchestra with a wonderful sound. Nine of our children play with the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, which is no mean feat.’
If Benedetti has one wish it is that there should be a substantial amount of classical music played in schools. ‘The benefits of regularly listening to, say, a 15-minute Beethoven movement are immeasurable,’ she says. ‘As you’re listening you’re developing patience, opening a creative channel in your brain, and being exposed to one of the best, most complex works that a human being has ever created.
‘To me, sending a child through their education without asking them to do that is the same as not asking them to read the great novels. Children have commercial pop culture drummed into their brains every day. All I’m saying is please show them the other side of the coin too. Quality music will make any child’s life much, much better. I haven’t met a single teacher – and I’ve been into more schools than I can count – who can tell me that their students are immune to the benefits.’
It is the tag of inaccessibility that has become attached to classical music which Benedetti considers the biggest obstacle. ‘I hear so much negativity, all the time,’ she says. ‘Words like elitist, stuffy, posh. But to a five-year-old child, music is music. It just sounds how it sounds. They don’t have any preconceptions about it. If we can get to them while they are young, I genuinely believe that we can immeasurably improve the quality of their lives. To me, it feels like a bit of a race against time.’
Every time her performing work takes her to a different country – at least once a week, on average – Benedetti goes out of her way to visit schools and give masterclasses to young children. In the most recent series of Young Musician of the Year, shown on the BBC last month, she mentored the young finalists.
‘It’s the most natural and obvious extension of what I do,’ she says. ‘I’ve been given a great gift in my life, and I have a burning desire for other people to at least have the chance to get the sort of pleasure from music that I am fortunate enough to get on a daily basis.’
Benedetti with her MBE last year PHOTO: PA
One suspects that there is a part of Benedetti that feels a certain guilt at having been given such a phenomenal gift, wrapped up in such a perfect package. She hasn’t really had a day off. She doesn’t buy clothes, or holiday homes or beautiful things with the significant sums of money that she has earned over the years.
The only reason she will take a taxi rather than the Underground is because she gets nervous walking around town with the £10 million Stradivarius that is on loan to her from the London-based banker Jonathan Moulds, her Medici-style American patron.
Even when she isn’t working, Benedetti is working; making notes on manuscripts, setting exercises for herself or reading up on the history of music. Any formal education that she missed out on Benedetti is making up for. ‘I’m slightly obsessive about the need to learn,’ she admits. ‘Even Leonard gets frustrated. “Oh, for God’s sake!” he’ll say. “Do you have to tell me what Ravel did in such-and-such a year?” ’
But it is precisely this commitment and passion that sets Benedetti so spectacularly apart from the rest. It is also what feeds her soul.
‘What classical music gives me is almost impossible to put into words,’ she says. ‘When I’m playing it’s like a spiritual sense of wellbeing comes over me. I’m absolutely convinced – and I want the world to know what I know – that there is something in the music itself that can bring you to a place of substance. And from that place, I truly believe that anything is possible.’
Homecoming: A Scottish Fantasy is out on Monday