Nicola Benedetti wasn't afraid to leave her home in Ayrshire, Scotland when she was 10 in order to study violin at a prestigious London music school. Nor was she shy about signing a major recording deal at 16. And this year, at age 23, she'll intrepidly perform 100 concerts around the globe.
So it’s no surprise that the talented violinist believes that mental toughness is the key to mastering the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto -- one of two major pieces on her new album, the other being the Bruch Violin Concerto.
“I had to force myself never to relax, never to sit back, to never to feel comfortable and always be pushing myself to be on the edge,” she said of the recording sessions. “It shouldn’t be a comfortable-sounding piece. It should be tough.”
Benedetti admits that the recording studio can be an unnatural environment, but by now, she is familiar with settings as diverse as London's Hyde Park (for the BBC Proms), the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, CA, and the opening of the Scottish Parliament.
She performed in the WQXR Café (right) during a recent visit to New York.
“I think that as you gain more and more experience you learn, no matter where you are, to focus purely on the message of that piece and try to be completely in that zone,” Benedetti said in her cheerful brogue.
The daughter of Italian immigrants, Benedetti started playing the violin when she was four. In 1997, she left home for studies at the Yehudi Menuhin School, founded by the renowned violinist in 1963. A year later, she was already making appearances throughout London and Paris, and in 2000 she performed with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.
A pivotal moment came in 2004, when she was named the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year. Soon after she signed a six-album recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon, reported to be in the neighborhood of $2 million.
While her career has exploded, Benedetti has sought to build it on her own terms. Her repertoire choices have been sometimes unorthodox; her last release was a concept album of short pieces by Ravel, Vaughan-Williams, Faure, Pärt and others.
In 2008, Benedetti, feeling overworked, decided it was time to step off the treadmill. She went to study with two new teachers, both Eastern Europeans based in Vienna, and learned new repertoire. “My big change in approach happened after I did two tours back to back, in Spain and China,” she explained. “I had concerts before and after and it was just too much.”
Today the former prodigy is more deliberate about her calendar. “I’m a much more confident, balanced, happy person in many ways. That’s really been down to making those adjustments.”
In the WQXR Café, Benedetti played the Sarabande from Bach’s D-minor Partita. She believes Bach's partitas should be treated as actual music and not just as a set of technical exercises. "I find it a very spiritual experience,” she said. "It’s all about music. Every approach to Bach should be about voicing, about hearing his different instrumentations, trying to envision the religious message. It’s about so many things that have nothing to do with using the music in a technical cleanse."
Video: Jennifer Hsu; engineering: Edward Haber