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10 Questions for Nicola Benedetti and Wynton Marsalis

(photo: John Devlin)

He’s an American jazz giant; she’s a Scottish doyenne of the classical violin. Anyone familiar with one more than the other – and that’s more or less everyone – would do a double take to see their names on the same bill. But this week at Barbican Hall, a new concerto by Wynton Marsalis will be premiered by Nicola Benedetti and the London Symphony Orchestra.

What they have in common is a tireless commitment to promoting music education. Jazz at Lincoln Center of which Marsalis is both founder and artistic director has an educational programme, and he is also director of the Juilliard’s jazz studies. Benedetti is an active participant in Sistema Scotland, the Scottish outcrop of the Venezuelan music education project. The other thing they have in common is an early start. By the age of 23 Marsalis had won Grammys for both jazz and classical recordings (the only artist ever to do so). Benedetti won Young Musician of the Year at 16. They have been friends for more than a decade, and as they explain to theartsdesk, it was out of that friendship that the new composition slowly emerged.

JASPER REES: How did you two meet?

NICOLA BENEDETTI: It was 11 years ago at the Academy of Achievement summit, which is phenomenally American. They invite 300 student delegates from all over the world to take part in symposiums and talks and watch performances. Most are on their way to becoming lawyers and doctors and scientists but a very small percentage are musicians, and I was one of them. I think there were only five. Wynton was a previous recipient of an honour from the Academy. I performed in Jazz at Lincoln Center just after his quintet. (It was the most surreal day of my life: just in front of me was Itzhak Perlman.) I’ve kept in touch with him over the years about my playing and progress. It is just a very long-term friendship and mentorship.

How did the idea of a piece for violin come up?

WYNTON MARSALIS: I love the violin, I love fiddle music, that’s all part of the African tradition, people played fiddles all through the 19th century, and so on. I love the versatility of the instrument, the sound of it, I love the different things that it can do. It can take two lines at one time, it can play chords, sing up in the register, it’s a dance instrument, it can be played percussively and very sweetly, it’s very transparent, it can change emotions and feelings very quickly, the long lyric passages and extremely rapid breath-taking parts. It can do twang and be very country. So it just came out of the natural course of us talking. I mainly write pieces for people and I almost always know them.

Was it always going to be a concerto?

NB: He for a long time would hint that he wanted to write something for violin. But for a long time it was more a case of a solo piece. I think he was probably thinking something based on the Isaye sonata but with more a Celtic fiddle or American fiddle take on it. And then a couple of years ago I sent Wynton quite a few of my recent live recordings that I was feeling particularly positive about. With one of the people that I work with on education projects, we all went out for coffee and it was really that day that Wynton decided that he was up for writing a concerto, which of course takes on an entirely different life of its own. You then have to find commissions and conductors and an orchestra. It becomes much more official. We were very lucky that LSO were the first ones to go for it.

Wynton, you are principally celebrated as a jazz performer and composer. What is it about the violin that intrigues you? Will the concerto have jazz inflections?

WM: I’m a jazz musician. That’s what I write. There is a place in which jazz and other forms of western music meet because jazz is a western music. The roots of all Afro-American music is Anglo-Celtic music. Being in that tradition, I have a natural affinity to that sound, the sounds of reels, the sound of drones. John Coltrane’s music has something in common with Scottish music. It’s not like I have to hocus pocus, to create some relationship. I lay out my forms clearly and then a lot of music comes to me and I work on it. I’m not trying to be arty. I’m trying to just communicate very directly what the piece is that she will be interested in playing and have enough challenges for the orchestra. And something that people will want to listen to.

What was your input as the soloist, Nicola?

NB: I would say an abnormal amount on this project. If Wynton had been writing for a jazz band and solo sax he’d have just written the piece – and even if it was an hour long – in a very short space of time. That’s his language, it’s where he has decades of experience. Writing for orchestra and solo violin there’s two mediums that he’s far less assured in and was really reliant on a lot of – I wouldn’t say guidance but a lot of co-signing. “Does this work for violin?” “Yes.” “Can you do this?” “No, you can’t.” We spent hours on very mundane practical things. Every single note of the piece he and I went through and analysed in terms of the violinistic capabilities. It’s totally gob-smackingly amazing for me to see that process.

How all-consuming was it to be involved on that level?

NB: I won’t lie and say that my repertoire load is permanently pressured. I’m always running to the last second to make sure I’ve learnt everything in time. There were few moments where I said, “I’ve just spent two hours going through the second movement and, oh my God, do I really have the time to do that?” You could say, “You write it and I’ll play it.” But it’s much less likely that’s going to fit me. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t write one note. I made a lot of suggestions and he seems to think that I’ve got quite good instincts for stuff so… I don’t know, it was news to me.

What did you discuss specifically, Wynton?

WM: In terms of the music it’ll be form, structure, content, keys and modulations, what’s effective, how to do various things with specific instructions. Everything from whether something should be a fugue, should it have harmonies, how long is a dance movement? Yesterday we were having a conversation about the profound impact of the groove. If the music is supposed to be grooving and you don’t groove, the music sounds superficial. Does it mean the music is superficial? It’s fun to discuss all these things with her because of her level of seriousness.

Nicola, as the soloist premiering it, could you describe the concerto?

NB: Nothing in the piece feels that unfamiliar, maybe because I’ve seen it grow step by step. But I would say there’s very little jazz in the concerto. There is no improv. The closest to it is the third movement because it’s in the blues form – cycles and choruses. The first movement is the most varied. It captures everything that the whole concerto says, it starts with a very substantial melody. You’d be fooled into thinking this is going to be a really tuneful piece, but quite quickly it departs into far more dissonant and schizophrenic-type writing. The second movement is a burlesque rondo and extremely technically challenging, but with a lot of humour in it. There are a lot of little winks and jokes. In the last movement there is a lot of fighting between the violin had the orchestra. It’s based on two- and four-bar phrases from the fiddle tradition, although my part feels a bit more like something you would play in a Stravinsky concerto.

What is it about Nicola’s playing that appeals to you, Wynton?

WM: The first thing is the depth of understanding in her sound. There is wisdom in it. It has a warmth in all of the registers. The second thing is the range of emotion, like Ornette Coleman, who was able to go to from deep crying pathos to a laughing quality in the course of a note or two. She has that type of emotional range. The third thing is her level of engagement with classical music. She cares about other people’s music. She has a humanity that I respect and can relate to. It’s not all about her and her career. I like her generosity towards her peers. Another thing is her work ethic. I saw her practice 12, 16 hours a day. I have to love that. I believe in that type of seriousness.

Will we hear this in the music?

WM: That’s all that’s there. There’s nothing else for me to do for her.

Nicola Benedetti performs Wynton Marsalis’s Concerto in D at the Barbican on Friday 6 November

by Jasper Rees
Source: The Arts Desk

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