Nicola Benedetti (Photo credit: Event Magazine)
Meet Nicola Benedetti, violin superstar and the toughest ever Prom Queen
By Sarah Oliver
The Daily Mail
June 30, 2018
She plays so hard she’s lost the feeling in her neck. As she tunes up for another stirring Prom performance, Nicola Benedetti tells Event that life as a classical music megastar can be bruising and brutal.
It’s impossible to miss the twin scars on Nicola Benedetti’s neck. The circles of dark, badly scuffed skin, one by her left clavicle, the other just below her jawline (see picture below), are the legacy of hours of playing the violin, the place where her £10 million, 301-year-old Stradivarius tucks in. She’s had them so long she’s got no feeling left there, and eventually she might join the ranks of world-class violinists who have to have remedial surgery.
‘They don’t hurt, they’re just numb,’ she says as she sweeps back a swoosh of long wavy hair. ‘I’ve never known how I look without them as they developed at such a young age. But I always request for them not to be covered by make-up. Photographers frequently want me to do that, and I ask for them to be left alone. I guess that says I’m proud and comfortable with them.’
There’s a long list of other things besides perfect skin the 30-year-old has sacrificed for her art, including time for nesting at home, hobbies, a proper exercise regime and listening to a genre other than classical. She has had to be tough to navigate the arcane world of classical music, which consumes her even when she’s just rehearsing. ‘My ears start to burn when I am trying to master a piece from memory because it is so intense,’ she says.
It is a world which almost bested her a decade ago. ‘I was thrust in, too suddenly, too early. I could start blaming whoever I wanted for that now, but fundamentally I said yes to everything. It would have been up to me to have the strength to do less – but you don’t know what you are capable of until you try and sometimes fail. There was a level of cynicism around me because I’d had all this publicity and then not always played my best in concerts. I was doing too many. I wasn’t prepared for them. I was not in the right head space. I came close to faltering when I was 19 or 20, and I had to take a step back because there are so many infamous examples of burn-out.’
Like who? ‘Well, you wouldn’t have heard of them because their potential was phenomenal, but they did not get the chance to realise their talent.’
Fortunately, Benedetti has. She is now one of the most sought-after soloists of her generation, with eight albums and two Classical Brit Awards to her name. In 2016 she became the youngest person ever to be awarded the Queen’s Medal for Music. (It turns out the monarch agrees with Benedetti about the need for children to learn an instrument – they had a lengthy chat about it when Benedetti received her medal. ‘The Queen said that having just watched children play, it had occurred to her this was one of the few times their hands couldn’t be on anything else – anything else digital – and nor could their minds!’)
As a performer she still suffers from nerves – she gets nauseous rather than physically sick – but today she feels her career is stable and solid. She has always believed it’s a privilege to be able to play in an environment she considers ‘a sacred place’, although not one that has not been immune from #MeToo moments. Most shattering in the UK was the departure of Charles Dutoit, the principal conductor and artistic director of London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He left with immediate effect last January amid allegations, which he denies, of sexual assault. Benedetti refuses to comment on individual cases, but she agrees that the traditional image of the maestro and his orchestra could lead to compromising situations.
‘Overwhelmingly my experience has been cordial and fair. However, when I was a lot younger there was some improper behaviour, although never anything I couldn’t handle, even when I was 17 or 18. I won’t give a specific example because I don’t want to join the crowd.
‘Honestly, if I felt I had been damaged by those moments I would consider saying something because I would carry resentment and anger, but I don’t.
‘I think there is still a lot of integrity in the world of classical performance. If you are as serious as you can be about how you play your instrument, about your music, and you show everybody that is 100 per cent where your focus is, it is incredible what you can defuse and dissipate.’
She is emphatically not saying that women can avoid unwanted sexual attention or that it shouldn’t be called out and punished. ‘No, not at all. Some people are pigs and I want to believe in a legal system that functions and is called into place when someone is accused of something.’
She’s just saying she doesn’t consider herself to be a victim.
Benedetti was protected, perhaps, by the fact that she was in a high-profile relationship with a fellow musician, German cellist Leonard Elschenbroich, from the age of 19. They parted last year.
‘It is a dream scenario of a break-up,’ she says. ‘Our relationship existed on many different levels – we were partners, we performed together, supported each other, we had been at school together, had known each other from being nine and ten years old. Without being together as boyfriend and girlfriend, the rest of the levels on which we communicated still exist.’
Fans held their breath to see if the pair would still play in trios and quartets together and they do. Sometimes he conducts her too. Their music has outlasted their romance. Benedetti sounds like she has a new boyfriend now but is coy about confirming it. ‘Maybe, maybe not, perhaps, perhaps not…’ she smiles.
It’s hard to know how she finds time for a love affair as she’s rarely at home and when she is, she’s often preparing and rehearsing up to six hours a day. She relaxes by cooking and catching up with friends. There’s no time for the yoga or pilates which would strengthen her arms, and after 12 years in her flat she’s only just starting to do it up. ‘I haven’t so much as put a new door handle on a cupboard for a decade,’ she says.
The travel is hard going, but she won’t stop and her diary shows concert dates in Toronto, Stockholm, Sydney, Santa Fe, New York, Seattle and Lucerne. Nor will she be trading classical for crossover, the kind of accessible and lucrative classical-lite exemplified by fellow violinist Vanessa-Mae and singer Katherine Jenkins. ‘You increase your sales and a certain type of visibility in front of a mainstream public, but at what point have you sold your soul and sacrificed too much in order to do that?’ she asks.
And as for dumbing down the classic experience: ‘Let’s change the concert halls, put a pop beat under the music, don’t have a silent atmosphere, get everyone to pull out their mobile phones and let them film whatever they want … No! I am not a fan of that. Classical music is bloody difficult to learn and play and it is long form, so the audience has to concentrate to listen to it. I am not an apologist for any of those things.’
She adores the Proms but says classical musicians can feel two ways about its rapidly increasing musical diversity. ‘Things that are traditional and historic fall into the troubled question of how they maintain that and move with the times. Some people can get quite defensive when extremely popular and heavily promoted styles of music make their way into the Proms. I feel different about it every day. I think if people recognise an institution as being open to their persuasions, then they will explore more of that institution, but I don’t believe in a revival and homogenisation of the classical experience.
‘My overriding feeling is that the Proms is the greatest music festival anywhere because of the massive number of people they get in there. It’s friendly. You can go for £6. It’s world-class music yet it’s the opposite of elite.’
Benedetti will be playing there, her violin sitting on her calloused neck, in the kind of va-voom evening dress she thinks the audience deserves, pursuing greatness rather than stardom. On reflection, I reckon those marks could best be described as battle scars.
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