Classical Music

Nicola Benedetti Trades Wynton Marsalis for Beethoven With the DSO

Nicola Benedetti became the first solo British violinist to break the Top 20 Official U.K. Albums Chart since the 1990s.
Simon Fowler
Nicola Benedetti became the first solo British violinist to break the Top 20 Official U.K. Albums Chart since the 1990s.
This weekend, superstar violinist Nicola Benedetti will perform a feat of musical versatility. Fresh off two years of performing Wynton Marsalis’ wild, polarizing Concerto in D, she will return to the classical canon and tackle a giant of the past: Beethoven’s revered violin concerto.

Benedetti, 30, has been touring Marsalis’ concerto since its London debut in 2015. The final product, a piece the Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz genius wrote for and with Benedetti, unleashes Celtic, American, jazz and blues fiddle styles with European contemporary sounds, stormy sections, cleverly orchestrated percussive effects and some theatrics in its roughly 40 minutes. (Spoiler alert: It ends with the soloist walking off stage while still playing.)

But it’s no mashup. Amid all the praise Marsalis’ concerto has received, some have said that it tries to do too much. But Benedetti, who worked closely with Marsalis during the two-year writing process, says he made each musical choice deliberately, knowing the entire structure and melody of each movement from the moment he penned the first note. The result is “a really uplifting piece of music” and “a journey of diverse sounds,” Benedetti tells the Observer, calling her collaboration with the composer “one of the greatest experiences” of her life.

“He’s managed to take all of these forms and sew them together with material that is inextricable from each other and extremely connected,” she says.

Now that she has infused the complex new piece with life, her relationship to it continues to evolve as she performs with new orchestras and conductors.

“I look back to my first performances of it, and to me, they seem extremely conservative. And I’m sure in the next five years it will grow in dimensions I can’t even imagine right now,” she says.

After winning acclaim at a young age, Benedetti, a native of Scotland, has been in huge demand as a soloist and has played with top orchestras around the world. In 2017, she became the youngest recipient of the Queen’s Medal for Music, and she won Best Female Artist in the 2012 and 2013 Classic Brit awards. Her album Homecoming: A Scottish Fantasy made her the first solo British violinist to break the Top 20 Official U.K. Albums Chart since the 1990s.

Pivoting to the Beethoven, Benedetti brings her sterling technique and precise yet exuberant playing to a piece of almost mythic technical difficulty. One of the biggest challenges to playing it is bringing fresh ideas to a familiar — sometimes too familiar — piece, an opposite challenge from that of playing the Marsalis.

"A lot of teachers say students just don't like X, Y and Z, and so we play them Beyoncé or whatever. You don't ask them what they like if you're teaching them math. It doesn't make any sense." — Nicola Benedetti

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“The amount of times I’ve heard [the Beethoven] before the age of 15 is just ridiculous. And that, of course, builds into something that is larger than life, and that becomes quite terrifying in your mind,” Benedetti says. “And I think you spend a lot of the rest of your life demystifying him as a composer, demystifying the supposed challenges of the piece and just trying to make it your own.”

At the same time, the piece showcases a Beethoven who does not yet bear the weight of the world on his shoulders. In her performance, Benedetti strives to capture the spirit of a composer who prized improvisation and emotion and stood, at the time of composition, somewhat in the grey area between classical and romantic.

“So to actually try to embody that sense of freedom and discovery and shock and of emotion rather than looking at something that’s like an antique on a mantelpiece — it’s like trying to do that but still upholding a certain level of pristine in your playing; it’s the biggest challenge,” Benedetti says.

By the raucous third rondo movement, people should be smiling, or else “you haven’t done your job,” she says.
“Most broadly for me, no matter what I’m playing, I’m trying to tell a story, and I’m trying to excite and invigorate people.”

When not touring, Benedetti advocates for classical music education. She regularly gives master classes, visits schools and works with organizations to advance her cause. She says teachers can overemphasize fun and “letting go” too much in music when the real satisfaction comes from learning to play an instrument well.

“A lot of teachers say students just don’t like X, Y and Z, so we play them Beyoncé or whatever,” Benedetti said. “You don’t ask them what they like if you’re teaching them math. It doesn’t make any sense.”

After leaving Dallas, Benedetti returns to Europe for more concerts, but she says her main priority is to continue to develop as an artist.

“I just want to play better all the time," she says. "Practicing, improving and not to keep taking on too much work and keep deepening my understanding of the music and refining to myself why I’m doing it and what the point of it is."

Nicola Benedetti Performs the Beethoven Violin Concerto, 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Meyerson Symphony Center, 2301 Flora St., $24 and up,