The gatekeeper … Benedetti in Edinburgh. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian
She was leading an orchestra at the age of eight and won Young Musician of the Year at 16. What is the virtuoso’s vision for Edinburgh international festival? Audiences moved to tears and bagpipes going global
Seventy-five years since it was founded, the Edinburgh international festival finally has its first female director – and its first Scot. In March, it was announced that the concert violinist Nicola Benedetti would be taking over from Fergus Linehan, who had held the position for eight years. Benedetti was born in West Kilbride, Ayrshire. Now 35, she has spent her life at the pinnacle of British classical music, leading the National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain aged eight; studying at the Yehudi Menuhin school for young musicians under the maestro from 10; and winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year award at 16.
Benedetti is confident that this total immersion in the highest of high culture has given her the vision and expertise to lead Scotland’s foremost arts festival. “I’ve watched an average of 90 to 100 concerts a year since I was 16 years old,” she tells me over mint tea in the lobby of a fancy hotel in London’s West End. “I can’t tell you how much I’d like champagne and salmon,” she says, “but I’m not going to have that.” Her next stop is at Classic FM round the corner.
They’re not thinking: ‘There’s a woman taking that job – let’s sit here and watch her fail’
Surely she has only been immersed in one facet of high culture though, and the EIF includes theatre, dance and pop as well as classical music. “Well, classical music does count for a pretty large percentage of the offering of Edinburgh international festival,” she counters, before saying that she’s been deluged with offers of help in the other areas – hearteningly, she adds, from numerous men. “They’re not sitting there thinking, ‘There’s a woman taking that job, let’s sit here and watch her fail.’”
As well as supportive colleagues, Benedetti will also need formidable time management skills, as she intends to maintain her career as a musician. “Just wish me luck!” she says. “It was discussed a lot through the whole process of applying for the role. Everybody agreed that it was not only possible but vital that I continued performing.” She says she’ll be “more picky, more decisive, and I’m just less available to do the range of stuff I did before”. But also that, after Covid, and in the light of the climate emergency, like many musicians she had wanted to reassess how much she travelled anyway. Whatever happens, she will continue playing in her chamber music trio with cellist Leonard Elschenbroich and pianist Alexei Grynyuk. “That’s a gift to my life, the experience of playing with them, so that’s not going to change.”
If she tackles the job of festival director in the bravura way she does her performances, her EIF will be a must-attend. This summer’s Proms saw Benedetti at her most thrilling, playing a violin concerto written for her by the American jazz musician Wynton Marsalis. Combining the technical and emotional mastery she has over her instrument with swaggering showmanship, the concerto saw Benedetti riskily fly to the outer limits of her virtuosity – when Marsalis was composing the 43-minute piece, she demanded he make it more difficult to play. Nonetheless, she remained in total control, whether navigating a complicated duet with a drummer or walking off the stage while still playing at the end of the concerto, her luminous sound disappearing into the distance.
The Marsalis work is one of three violin concertos that have been written for her – the other two are by Mark Simpson, who won the Young Musician of the Year award 12 years after Benedetti did, and her fellow Scot James MacMillan. “It’s a phenomenal honour,” she says. “Three such different musical spirits and voices that write in such different languages, all of whom I can pick up the phone to and ask them a question” – unlike the deceased white men who make up most of the classical repertoire.
Just as Marsalis’s concerto brought together Scottish folk and Black American jazz and blues traditions, Benedetti says that her festival will make it its business to reveal the connections between Scottish culture and that of the rest of the world. “It doesn’t mean that we can’t celebrate the pipes in Scotland – I will be – but how does the drone of the pipes relate to Chinese and Indian classical music and folklore of Hungary? How do the rhythmic components of our Celtic dances relate to Senegalese music or the music in Mali?”
These kinds of exploration have sometimes drawn accusations of cultural appropriation – for instance when Inuit performer Tanya Tagaq called out the American choir Roomful of Teeth for incorporating Inuit throat-singing into one of their works – but Benedetti is aware of the pitfalls. “Unless you’re living under a rock,” she says, “you can’t not be thinking about those things.” As long as people on her team talk openly about the issues, challenge their own prejudices and work “with a sincerity and seriousness” to make the festival as diverse and internationalist as possible, she says, “I’m not saying that we won’t make mistakes, but we will be doing it with the right heart.”
There’s certainly no doubting her ambition. “I’m interested in presenting the complexity of the truth,” she says. “There’s no better place to do that in the worlds of the arts, and there’s no better place to do it than condensed into a three-week festival where you get to present the messiness of the human story.” But what does that actually mean she will programme? “I think that’s something that will have to wait until a little bit closer to the announcement of next year’s festival,” she demurs, sipping her mint tea.
One thing is for sure – the festival will not be dumbed down. Benedetti is passionate about giving today’s composers full rein to explore their obsessions. “In classical presentations today, we have this tradition of the five-minute contemporary work,” she says, wrily meaning that the typical programme – often at the Proms – sees a short work by a modern composer serving as an amuse bouche before the orchestra get stuck into the serious business of, say, a Brahms symphony.
“If I want to hear from someone who’s writing music today, I really want to hear from them,” she says. “I’m not in the business of apologising for the length of things, I think a climactic moment is made more powerful because you’ve experienced so many other things for 30 minutes before that.”
I want to ensure that anyone walking through our doors doesn’t feel: ‘I’m about to do something wrong’
Benedetti is convinced that she can put long, complex and subtle material in front of a mass audience and ensure everyone will love it. In fact, she says, “that’s my life’s dedication.” Context, she says, is the key. “None of my family play music apart from my sister,” she says, referring to Stephanie Benedetti, who performs with Clean Bandit. “I’ve been in living rooms filled with people that don’t play, nor listen to any of the music that I grew up playing, and I know if I tell them for two minutes the context of when and where and why The Lark Ascending was written, and then I play them The Lark Ascending, the experience they have is not just a little bit different, it’s the difference between them hearing abstract sound that sounds kind of pretty and them being moved to tears.”
She is keen to continue the free, mass-access performances Linehan initiated, and says the festival will go all out to make everyone feel comfortable, whether they’re a classical music buff or a complete novice. “I want to ensure that anyone walking through our doors doesn’t feel, ‘Shit, I’m about to do something wrong.’ And that they also feel prepared for what’s about to happen. Even something simple like knowing this piece is going to last 45 minutes, or this composer loved it if you clapped when you felt like it.” That said, nothing will get in the way of “the sanctity of two and a half thousand people listening to something with quietness and focus to allow the acoustic music on the stage to speak most fully.”
The longer one listens to Benedetti talk, the more impressive she seems. When it comes to leadership, in her unswerving commitment to the most sublime expressions of human endeavour, she’s like the anti-Liz Truss. She says that her main task at EIF is “sourcing and finding and celebrating and presenting the highest manifestations of art that exist around the world in all its forms”. She isn’t aiming for the merely good. Her festival will have, she says, “an absolutely clear and strong vision that makes people go, ‘I feel like, if I experience this, my life is going to be changed for the better in this moment.’” It’s a formidable challenge, but Benedetti is up for it. “We have to live in that space, otherwise what are we doing?”