The Scottish violin prodigy Nicola Benedetti has become a sensation in the classical music field in Great Britain. With her fashion-model good looks, Benedetti became a youthful celebrity like other stars in Britain's vigorous crossover classical scene. Benedetti, however, achieved her fame without compromising her artistic ideals. Signed to the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon classical label, she has appeared with top symphony orchestras in Britain and other countries, playing well-established concertos for violin and orchestra rather than diluting her repertoire with pop material. Indeed, celebrity was the furthest thing from Benedetti's mind as she approached adulthood. "The whole celebrity culture is grim," she told Gillian Bowditch of London's Sunday Times. "We're taught from the age of 10 that to have money and people shouting your name is the best thing. I know smart girls who say they would trade everything for that. For what?"
Nicola Benedetti, casually known as Nicky, was born in July of 1987 in the small town of West Kilbride in the Ayrshire district of southwestern Scotland. Her name was Italian because her father, Giovanni Benedetti, was an Italian immigrant to the British Isles. He prospered in the pharmaceutical industry by manufacturing plastic cases for first-aid kits, and his two daughters, Stephanie and Nicola, were sent to Ayrshire's Wellington private school. Although neither Giovanni Benedetti nor Nicola's mother, Francesca, had any musical leanings at all, the two girls were both strongly attracted to the violin at school. Nicola got her start on the violin when she came along with eight-year-old Stephanie to a lesson.
At first she was frustrated: as a left-hander, she found it awkward to hold the violin. But soon she was taking lessons following the Suzuki Method of violin instruction, and before long she was completely hooked. "From the age of three or four, playing the violin was what my life was going to be," she told London's Daily Mail. Impressed by her dedication, her teachers steered her toward the Yehudi Menuhin School for talented young musicians in England's Surrey region. She was admitted at age ten. The school was run by the American-British violinist Yehudi Menuhin, a prominent concert violinist whose style would influence Benedetti's own.
Studying at the Yehudi Menuhin School involved moving hundreds of miles away from her family, but Benedetti had a dedicated and independent streak from the start. Her parents never pressured her and reassured her that if she was unhappy she could come home. But she took quickly to the atmosphere of hard work. "I was quite homesick at the very beginning but I was so constantly excited and interested in what I was doing there," she recalled to the Daily Mail. "You'd have breakfast and then practice from 8 a.m. You never finished until 6:30, and at 7:30 you went upstairs to bed, with lights out at eight. So there was no time to be homesick."
Despite Menuhin's death during the second year of Benedetti's residence at the school (she performed at his funeral), she made rapid progress. At 14, she took home the first of several widely publicized prizes, snaring Prodigy of the Year, an award bestowed by a program broadcast on the Carlton Television network. Her advancement was so rapid, in fact, that when she was 15 she decided that she had learned all she could learn there as a soloist. Showing her independence once more, she made another move, this time to suburban London, in order to study with violinist and Royal College of Music professor Maciej Rakowski. She settled into a regime that included up to six hours a day of practicing.
Young Musican of the Year Award
By 2004 Benedetti's self-charted course paid off in a big way when she won the British Broadcasting Corporation's Young Musician of the Year award with a performance of Karol Szymanowski's technically treacherous concerto for violin and orchestra. The first Scot to win the prize, she appeared with the Scottish Symphony and received wide press coverage, including a cover slot in BBC Music magazine. Benedetti had appeared on a classical stage at Britain's giant Glastonbury outdoor rock festival the previous year, and the path to fame and fortune through pop crossover success seemed clear; to some she seemed a potential successor to the Singaporean-British classical-techno fusion violinist Vanessa-Mae (Vanessa-Mae Vanakorn Nicholson).
Benedetti, however, was determined to pursue a traditional classical career. After signing with Deutsche Grammophon (a subsidiary of the Universal conglomerate), she released a program containing the Szymanowski concerto and two shorter works as her debut disc in 2005. She had no plans for a crossover release. "I will only play music I believe in," she told Julian Lloyd Webber in a London Telegraph interview. "I would never say never, but I would only record music I really love. I like jazz on the violin but I'm not sure I would be very good at that." Indeed, her albums sold well without benefit of synthesizers or pop arrangements, and her debut topped U.K. classical sales charts.
Despite her traditionalist outlook, Benedetti's life was closely scrutinized by British tabloid newspapers for signs of romantic involvement. "All these questions about boyfriends are too soon," she complained to Lloyd Webber. "I am only 17 and I have plenty of time to meet someone. At present my profession comes first and anyone I was with would have to understand that." Pressure on another front came from critics who felt that she had been pushed too quickly into a recording career and a schedule of some 120 concerts a year. "I don't mind people saying I did too much too soon," she told Bowditch, "but what would have been better? Waiting 10 years only to discover that nobody was interested in listening to me?"
For the Record …
Born in July of 1987, in West Kilbride, Ayrshire, Scotland, United Kingdom; daughter of Giovanni (a pharmaceuticals manufacturer and Italian immigrant) and Francesca Benedetti. Education: Attended Yehudi Menuhin School, Surrey, England.
Signed to six-album contract with Deutsche Grammophon/Universal label; released debut album containing Szymanowski violin concerto, 2004; toured U.S., 2005; recorded Mendelssohn violin concerto, 2006; recorded and premiered new work by John Tavener composed especially for her, 2007.
Awards: Prodigy of the Year, Carlton Television, 2003; BBC Young Musician of the Year, 2004.
Addresses: Record company—Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Alte Rabenstrasse 2, 20148 Hamburg, Germany. Website—Nicola Benedetti Official Website: http://www.nicolabenedetti.co.uk.
By 2007 Benedetti seemed to have put many doubts to rest. She had broadened her reach beyond Britain, touring the United States in 2005 and making her debut in the demanding German market in Berlin in 2007. Her second album, released in 2006, featured Felix Mendelssohn's often-played violin concerto. The record was nominated for a Classical Brit award. That album also featured a new work written for Benedetti by Scottish composer James MacMillan—an honor usually reserved for older performers. She received a still bigger boost to her career when the prominent British minimalist composer John Tavener composed the violin-and-orchestra piece Lalishri for her; she premiered the work in 2007 and recorded it on her third album, along with Ralph Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending. The work, Tavener was quoted as saying in Playbill Arts, was inspired by the fourteenth-century Hindu saint and poet Lalla Yogishwari. "Her poetry with its combination of intensity and simplicity made me think of the ‘innocent intensity’ of Nicola Benedetti's playing," he said, and he was not the only prominent figure in classical music impressed by the young violinist's intensity.
Nicola Benedetti Plays Szymanowski, Chausson, and Saint-Saëns, Universal, 2004.
Nicola Benedetti Plays Mendelssohn, MacMillan, and Mozart, Universal, 2006.
Nicola Benedetti Plays Tavener and Vaughan Williams, Universal, 2008.
Daily Mail (London, England), September 8, 2007, p. 26.
Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland), August 30, 2007, p. 32.
Independent (London, England), January 31, 2005, p. 8.
Scotsman (Edinburgh, Scotland), October 6, 2003, p. 2; September 11, 2007, p. 35.
Sunday Times (London, England), September 2, 2007, p. 3.
"Classical Babe? Not Me," Telegraph (London, England), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml;jsessionid=0DEMWOSWDU2LRQFIQMGSFF4AVCBQWIV0?xml=/arts/2005/01/27/bmjlw27.xml (September 20, 2007).
Cornwell, Tim, "Nicola Benedetti: From Prodigy to Professional," http://www.living.scotsman.com/music.cfm?id=701642006 (September 20, 2007).
"John Tavener's New Violin Concerto, Lalishri, Has World Premiere in London," Playbill Arts,http://www.playbillarts.com/news/article/7108.html (September 20, 2007).
"Nicola Benedetti," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (September 20, 2007).
Official Nicola Benedetti Website, http://www.nicolabenedetti.co.uk (September 20, 2007).
—James M. Manheim
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