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Artistic endeavours: An interview with Nicola Benedetti

Violinist Nicola Benedetti has been director of Edinburgh International Festival since 2022 | Alamy

Artistic endeavours: An interview with Nicola Benedetti

It’s late March when Nicola Benedetti takes to the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall stage to finally perform Mark Simpson’s violin concerto. The piece, which was co-commissioned by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) and London Symphony Orchestra in 2019, was written specifically for Benedetti who, like Simpson, has had a stellar musical career since being named the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year, she in 2005, he two years later.

The performance has been a long time in the making – the RSNO’s planned Scottish premiere was cancelled in 2021 due to Covid then, in 2022, the rescheduled date had to be abandoned too after Benedetti developed tendonitis in her wrist. By the time she appears in Glasgow the heavily pregnant violinist is just weeks away from starting maternity leave and, having already cancelled concerts in Los Angeles and Pittsburgh due to the impending birth, only just manages to make it third time lucky.

It is lucky for the audience that she does, because the full-on, five-movement piece, with its complex orchestration and Eastern themes, is spectacular; Benedetti’s performance, full of light and shade and technical brilliance, is spellbinding. The reviews, in turn, are broadly glowing, with Keith Bruce of The Herald highlighting Simpson’s “distinctive vocabulary” and Benedetti’s “fiery style” while Ken Walton in The Scotsman points to the former’s “almost excessive enthusiasm” and latter’s “visible ease” with the piece’s “unrelenting technical demands”. 

For Benedetti, though, it is largely just a relief to finally get the performance away.

“It was the last big tour I was doing before going off on maternity leave,” she says when we catch up a few weeks later. “My remaining concerts were supposed to be in Los Angeles and Pittsburgh, but they are very far away places. It was a huge feat because it’s such a huge piece. It was quite an emotional experience for me.”

Outside the Albert Hall in London after winning the BBC's Young Musician of the Year Award | Alamy

Emotion has always been a central part of the musical experience for Benedetti. Having grown up in Ayrshire, she first became interested in music when her older sister Stephanie, now also a musician, began taking violin lessons. Teacher Brenda Smith took the younger Benedetti on too, using the Suzuki method, which is based on the theory that music acquisition, like language acquisition, is innate, to immerse her in music from the age of just four. Neither her father Giovanni, a businessman who moved from Italy to Scotland at the age of 10, or mother  Francesca had shown any musical inclination, but like her sister the young Benedetti almost immediately thrived.

“Brenda Smith galvanised a whole host of young people to be dedicated to music and I was very fortunate to be in that environment,” she says. “I’m left-handed so trying to play the violin the wrong way round was hard at first but once I got over that I loved the emotion and the expression of music. I wasn’t that fussed about virtuosity but at the age of five or six I was moved to tears by classical music, by composers like Elgar and Tchaikovsky.”

From West Kilbride, where she attended the fee-paying Wellington School Ayr, Benedetti moved to the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey, a specialist establishment founded by Lord Menuhin – the famed violinist and conductor – to provide an intensive musical education to especially gifted children. The education she received was certainly intense. Benedetti, who was just 10 when she made the move south, studied under Russian teachers Natasha Boyarsky and Lutcia Ibragimova, with the strict regime put in place at the school seeing pupils partake in 12-hour days that included up to six hours of instrumental practice alongside musical and mainstream classes.

But, despite her obvious talents, Benedetti knows she has been lucky – lucky to be able to start music lessons at such an early age, lucky to be taught by such inspirational teachers, particularly in the first instance, and lucky that her talent was spotted and then nurtured in a specialist music school. It is something she is keen to pass on, even in a small way, which is why in 2019 she established the Benedetti Foundation, whose aim is to “deliver transformative experiences through mass music events” and to “unite those who believe music is integral to life’s education”. The foundation has worked with 75,000 participants from 105 countries, bringing children together to share the benefits – to listening, to engaging, to problem solving – that playing and listening to music instils.

“Often we don’t focus enough on music appreciation and general music skills – fundamentals like singing together, understanding the basics of rhythmic work,” she says. “Hearing a great piece of music or seeing somebody play an instrument, that exposes you to a different type of sensory experience and can be the change [that inspires children to want to learn an instrument]. I do think it’s individual, but certainly if you increase the amount of that and the quality of singing and movement and music appreciation it would have a huge impact. Young children generally will always love that type of thing. They love the creativity of being able to make up songs and stories.

Benedetti (right) with her sister Stephanie, mother Francesca and father Giovanni | Alamy

“We, as a foundation, try to focus on building bridges between people. We try to focus on the main pillar of teacher training, which is absolutely vital. Also ensuring that they understand how valuable they are and the sense that what they do is important. Teachers already have a chronic undervaluation in terms of how they are supported in this country. Scotland is not alone there, but music teachers feel like they are at the bottom of the list.”

The reason music teachers feel that way is because music lessons are not classed as a core part of the Scottish educational curriculum, meaning the question of who should fund them – councils, the government or families – has become a thorny issue in recent years. With no statutory body seemingly wanting to take responsibility, in the run up to the pandemic the profession had been left with the impression that what it does has very little value attached to it at all. After much to-ing and fro-ing between central and local government, Holyrood politicians eventually agreed to foot the bill in 2021, with First Minister John Swinney, who was education secretary at the time, stressing that “participation in music and the arts can have a hugely positive effect on our children, our young people and on their families”, enhancing their “mental, emotional, social and physical wellbeing”.

But the situation remains precarious. The full cost of providing music lessons is much higher than the £12m a year the government has made available, and councils are again looking at ways to reduce their individual bills. Midlothian has threatened to reduce its service, Perth and Kinross has said it will reintroduce fees, and East Ayrshire last month agreed to progress a plan that will see its entire instrumental music service hived off into an arm’s length trust – something campaigners are preparing to challenge in the courts.

Although there has been a concerted effort to give more children the chance to learn a musical instrument, the funding situation means they are learning in larger groups and so their chances of progressing – and the chances of identifying the next Benedetti – have been curtailed. The impact of that, while troubling on an individual level, has the potential to be devastating on a national scale. On a recent visit to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS), assistant principal Dr Lois Fitch told me it is becoming increasingly difficult for the institution to fill the places set aside for Scottish students each year because the system is not geared up to ensure they attain the necessary standards. “It’s anecdotal because I didn’t work here then but 20 years ago there would have been a big difference between the level of a Scottish audition and international students; when I was at university in the north of England there was a significant proportion of Scots and they were often markedly better than we were. Now it’s a much harder environment,” she said.

For Benedetti, that shows that the fight that led to the Scottish Government funding music lessons in the first place must go on.

“The provision of music lessons in schools is not a new battle, but important battles and fights you have to keep revisiting and fighting – as is the case with most things that are not necessarily, at first appearance, a mainstream challenge for society,” she says. “We’re very lucky in Scotland to have a small but focused group of individuals who spearhead a lot of those fights and galvanised tens of thousands of people across the country who are dedicated to believing that music should be an integral part of a first-class education, and that that’s a right for every child.” 

Though the provision of music lessons in schools might not seem like a mainstream challenge for society, for Benedetti, who since 2022 has been director of Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), it is representative of the existential crisis facing the arts in Scotland. When I visited the RCS its principal Jeff Starkey told me the issue with not being able to fill the slots allocated for Scottish students was emblematic of the wider devaluing of the arts in Scotland as a whole. Last year Francesca Hegyi, executive director of EIF, told me how the sector was struggling for survival after effectively being ignored for years by the Scottish Government, which allocates just 0.5 per cent of its annual budget to the arts against a European average of one per cent. With the sector generating huge economic benefits at the same time as shaping the country’s cultural identity and broadening the horizons of its people, that was a frightening position to be in, she said. Benedetti agrees.

At the launch of this year's Edinburgh International Festival programme | Mihaela Bodlovic

“The reason I took on the role at the international festival is that it’s such a beacon of world-leading quality and shows what it’s possible for Scotland to do,” she says. “My emotion around it is very genuine and broad and wide-ranging. We’re not in a unique position on financial sustainability but we do need to look at how we diversify our income in order to protect the festival. It’s about what the festival symbolises to the rest of the country. If we’re unable to deliver in the way we do, what would that say about Scotland to the world and what would it say about the identity of our country to our people? It would symbolise a real shift that we just do not want to see.”

EIF has a range of funding streams, with donors, membership and ticket sales all in the mix. Accessibility and participation is key and, while the festival is not run on a profit-making basis, tickets for some events come with a high price tag to ensure others can be put on without any charge at all. In 2019, 15,000 people saw superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in a free concert at Tynecastle Park; in 2022 the festival marked its 75th birthday by giving away 35,000 free tickets; and this year Scottish Ballet will present a mass-dance piece for Healing Arts Scotland outside the Scottish Parliament.

It would not be able to do any of that work if a large chunk of its funding did not come from the public purse. Yet with Creative Scotland’s budget looking decidedly uncertain in recent years – last year £6.6m was cut, reinstated, then cut again, while a £100m cash injection promised by former first minister Humza Yousaf last year has yet to materialise – Benedetti says it is “a very trepidatious time” for organisations like EIF. Public finances might be constrained, she says, but seeing the arts as low-hanging fruit when it comes to cutting costs would not only represent a failure of government, but a failure of society itself.

“It is a responsibility for government, unless you begin to think that arts, culture – and by that I mean all the activities that fall into the general psychological, mental, emotional wellbeing and health of the nation, of society and individuals, everything that falls into that category I would relate to a civic pillar you can call culture – if as a nation we start to believe that that’s not one of the civic pillars that we hold ourselves to, we are essentially changing our goalposts and our identity,” she says. “We’re shifting what post-the Second World War we believed was a society that was increasing in equality and elevating civilisation. If we don’t consider it to be that, then that’s a major identity shift. If we do consider it to be so, then a portion of what’s raised in taxes and spent by the government should be on the fabric of the life we live and what we call culture and art. We would allow that to slip away from the responsibility of the government at our peril.”

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