Sunday Times, 28 October 2012
Okay, a couple of small things I have to get out of the way first, so they don’t distract you from the huge things that come later. First, Nicola Benedetti looks like an Italian screen goddess: think Sophia Loren, Monica Vitti and, latterly, Monica Bellucci. The eyes are almond-shaped and deep brown, the hair is thick and lustrous, the lips are full… You get the picture: she is drop-dead, heart-stopping, dry-mouthed gorgeous. Second, you have not lived until you’ve heard a Stradivarius played in the limited confines of a Chiswick flat. Got that? Right, now forget all of it.
Giovanni Benedetti was sent from a small village near Barga, in Tuscany, to West Kilbride, in Scotland, when he was 10. He married another Italian migrant, Francesca, and they had two daughters, Stephanie and, four years later, Nicola, who was to become, 25 years on, one of the great violinists of our time. Things went well for the Benedettis. Starting out with nothing, Giovanni bought a dry-cleaning shop that became a chain. He also invented one of the most useful things in the world. Nicola goes out to the kitchen to show it to me. It is the Benedetti clingfilm dispenser. “Extremely, extremely useful,” she says, showing me how the lid of the box neatly slices off a sheet of film.
Giovanni’s machine and the dry-cleaning business made them well-off, but it was Francesca who did the grunt work with the sisters. In contemporary parenting terms, she would be known as a “tiger mom” at best, or a tyrant at worst. She just sounds to me like, as Benedetti would put it, an “extremely, extremely” good mother. “She grew up in tough circumstances, as did my dad, and neither of them let us forget that, so, although there may have been friends in my class or others who had less money than us, we always had fewer toys.
“We were just” — she says the next four words slowly, for emphasis — “not. At. All. Spoilt. When we started to play the violin, we weren’t children who were allowed to do anything and everything. We were told, pick something and do that thing properly, and if you are not going to stick with that, then you are going to move on to something else.”
During school holidays, the sisters had to work at one thing for three hours every morning before they could go out to play. If you’re waving this article at your children, point to what Benedetti said next about those three-hour sessions: “Think how much more fun that made the afternoons! I see young children — seven, eight, nine — in the holidays now swimming about aimlessly, frustrated because they have no structure. You already understand at that age the feeling of achievement and reward, and the feeling of relaxation after a struggle. It’s a natural instinct.”
When we started to play the violin, we weren’t children who were allowed to do anything and everything. We were told, pick something and do that thing properly, and if you are not going to stick with that, then you are going to move on to something else
You might also point to this: “Even people who say they were made to practise and hated every minute of it, I don’t believe it made them worse people. I think learning the art of discipline and routine, even if you don’t enjoy it, even if it puts you off that instrument — it isn’t to make you a solo violinist. The point of it is that you can then apply it to whatever skill may be your choice.”
And you parents who might be tempted to indulge in that most horrible habit, bragging about your children, note this: “They never said their daughter was precious and gifted, ever. Other parents would talk about their gifted children. My mother just said, ‘She practises the violin, and she’s quite good at it.’”
Benedetti started the violin at four, at about the same time as her sister, who was eight. Her sister still plays, in the Raven Quartet, but by the time Benedetti was nine, it had become clear that she was something special. When did she notice? “At no distinct point, really. When I was eight or nine, there were outside factors that made it clear to my teachers and parents that I was advanced for my age. I auditioned for the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, and I was sat in the leader’s chair, with 120 much older kids behind me.”
She won a place at the Yehudi Menuhin School, one of the best and toughest of its kind in the world. On top of the normal curriculum, there were five or six hours of practice a day: a tough regime, but one for which her mother had prepared her well. Pretty soon after she arrived, everything became dizzying. She was getting solo gigs and all sorts of strange awards, such as winning the United Kingdom’s Brilliant Prodigy competition, run by Carlton Television. She did her GCSEs, but at about the same time she won the big one — the BBC Young Musician of the Year — and never took her A-levels. Does she feel she missed out?
“I meet people who have studied history, geography or any world study, and I can’t have conversations with them about their thoughts and feelings. But at a human, fundamental level, I feel what I have learnt about countries I have visited is ingrained in my heart and mind far more. Then I can go and read a book, and it has a certain significance to me. But there’s also the level of intelligence you meet being a classical musician: the conductors, the composers. The people have phenomenal minds and can teach you to such a huge extent — and that’s not counting the conversations you are having, through a piece of music, with some of the greatest geniuses who have ever lived.”
I am beginning to realise there is nothing Benedetti has not thought through — and, I keep having to tell myself, she is only 25. Anyway, the point about “conversations… through a piece of music” brings us to the hugest of all the big things we are discussing here. Once, listening to a young Evgeny Kissin playing Beethoven, I was overwhelmed by the oddity of what I was hearing: a child, almost, drawing up, as if from a deep well, the most profound and complex emotions of which we are capable. It is this, above all, this unknowable connection between performer and composer, that makes music the most mysterious of all the arts. Benedetti doesn’t resolve the mystery, but, boy, does she get it.
“I never feel any composer is me, I just feel it’s like loving someone, that’s what it feels like to me. I feel a bursting love for Brahms when I am playing his music, and love for Tchaikovsky and, most of all, love for Beethoven.”
That’s it. Love. So simple. Yet not so simple. But there’s another thing I’ve never understood. Why don’t great musicians cry all the time? Benedetti admits she did once, while playing the third movement of Beethoven’s Archduke Trio. “You are in touch with some new, unearthly spirituality that is so unbelievably powerful,” she says. “If you can’t feel that when you are playing, you can’t expect the audience to feel it.”
After the interview, feeling I am not quite in my right mind, I check her rating with my more musical friends. One couldn’t speak, one said she was a “real musician” and one said: “She is the real thing. Why did she play the Last Night of the Proms?” — that gig being pretty much klutzville among the musically sensitive. There was a general feeling that she was in danger of letting her marketing become too “poppy”, which could turn her into a new Vanessa-Mae.
It is this, above all, this unknowable connection between performer and composer, that makes music the most mysterious of all the arts. Benedetti doesn’t resolve the mystery, but, boy, does she get it
So she’s great — “real” is the word — but here comes the kicker: she is also good. She is top of the classical charts; she can play more or less wherever she wants in the world; she is mastering the entire repertoire, learning several concertos a month; and at the same time, she is running a fierce and effective campaign to bring music to the masses. She went to Venezuela to study El Sistema, its method for getting children into music, and is now known as “big sister” to the Sistema
programme in Scotland. She is horrified by the fact that there are people out there who are not given the chance to feel the music. “When I was 16, I was talking to people about the age at which children were being exposed to classical music. Before I was even aware of it being necessary, my brain was already thinking like that. What kind of people are coming to our concerts? Is it only the wealthy and the best educated?
“It is so tragic how people underestimate the power of music, and how misunderstood its power is. The thing is its absoluteness and, if you’re someone who says funding to the arts shouldn’t be cut, you are forced to answer the question, ‘Why?’ Art deserves to be sustained and maintained and continued, purely for the reason of its greatness, regardless of whether it changes people’s lives. And, second, just because it is so grossly misunderstood. But you can’t put that down on a document with statistics.” She even goes into one London school, Highgate, to rehearse her pieces with the children. I mean genuinely rehearse: she is doing it for herself as well as the pupils. She has buttonholed politicians about arts funding in the past. They should give her anything she wants. I know I would.
Children are not immediately likely for Benedetti. She has been with her boyfriend, the cellist Leonard Elschenbroich, for five and a half years, but they are not planning marriage “any time soon”.
In the end, I had no choice but to raise the matter of her gorgeousness. She’d thought that one through, and thwacked it straight to the boundary, with a sideswipe at celebrity. “No question, my looks helped — for a record company, it makes me easier to sell. But anything that is perceived to be because of the way you look is as damaging as it is helpful. If you want to be famous, go for it. I’ve never felt I would go out of my way to be dowdy, because that is succumbing to those pressures just as much as if I took all my clothes off. Yes, I am against celebrity that is not celebrating anything.”
Of all the things Benedetti said — and she said many more things than I have space to report — one offhand remark said more than she realised. She said, with feeling, of the classical repertoire: “There is so much.” It’s all out there, waiting to be heard, like the biggest and best Christmas gift ever, and she wants to give it to everybody. You’d better go and see her now — no, no, as you were, you’d better go and hear her. She is the real thing.