As one of the world’s most acclaimed young violinists, Nicola Benedetti has earned a stellar reputation for her ability to perform some of the most challenging works in classical music with flawless technical mastery and deep emotional conviction.
So what did this Scottish-born virtuoso tell jazz legend Wynton Marsalis after he sent her the first page of the violin concerto he had composed especially for her?
“I told him, ‘It’s too easy!’ ” Benedetti, 30, recalled, laughing at the memory.
How did Marsalis, 56, react to her “too easy” comment?
“He loved it!” she replied.
“He was relieved that somebody had responded like that. He’s used to having the opposite happen - that everyone tells him what he wrote is too complicated and will take too long to rehearse.”
As reference, Benedetti sent him scores to violin concertos by Beethoven, Shostakovich, Stravinsky and some of her other favorite composers. At her request, Marsalis happily and extensively reworked his Concerto in D Major before she debuted it in 2015 at concerts in Europe and last year in North America, including at the Hollywood Bowl and at the Ravinia festival in Chicago.
In his notes about the concerto, which draws from jazz, blues and Scottish reels, Marsalis points out some musical characteristics he and Benedetti share.
“Because Anglo-Celtic mythology, process, dance and music are all up in the roots of most forms of American folk expression, Nicky and I were able to mine our natural ancestry and mutual heritage,” Marsalis writes.
“She gave me a first-class course on violin.”
Benedetti will perform the concerto Friday and Sunday with the San Diego Symphony and guest conductor Cristian M?celaru. The Jacobs Masterworks concert, which is billed as “Romance, Mystery, Marsalis,” will also feature Suite No. 1 from Bizet’s Carmen and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, Op. 35.
A tantalizing gourmet feast of various Americana music styles and classical, the concerto’s four movements are titled “Rhapsody,” “Rondo Burlesque,” “Blues” and “Hootenanny.”
They are a showcase for Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Marsalis’ love of vernacular American music. In turn, his concerto provides Benedetti with a stunning vehicle for her ballet-like ability to dance across the strings, her exceptional execution, and her skill at performing with pinpoint articulation at even the most accelerated tempos.
“It has evolved a lot,” she said of the 2-year-old concerto, speaking by phone last week from London. “The cadenza is almost entirely changed. I don’t think there’s a single note in it now that I played at the world premiere in London. But that’s always been the case - Wynton has rewritten the cadenza for almost every single performance.
“The piece itself hasn’t changed in structure or length all that much. But the clarity of the parts, in terms of specific guidance and directions - and the balance of orchestration - is always what you have to be quite careful about.”
“It didn’t seem t matter how much I mentioned that to Wynton,” she recalled. “He only believed it when he heard it for himself.”
She laughed again.
“I think the solo instrumental profession is quite an extreme version of a discipline,” Benedetti said. “By that, I mean most of the music we play - if not all of it - is music that, by necessity, you have put in a lot of hours just to get the virtuosic tempo and to have that element of magic you’re looking for onstage.
“That takes a lot of time and input. What I was trying to explain to Wynton is that I sound better playing something I find really hard to begin with, and that I have to go through hell to learn. Because that’s where my comfort level lies.”
Marsalis was only 18 when he joined Art Blakey’s fabled band, The Jazz Messengers, in 1980. Within a few years, he was a jazz star and band leader in his own right.
In 1983, the audacious young trumpeter became the first artist ever to win Grammy Awards for both jazz and classical albums - a feat he repeated the following year.
In 1997, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his ambitious oratorio, “Blood on the Fields.” In 2009, the French government presented him with the Legion of Honor, that country’s highest honor.
Given his stature, did Benedetti hesitate to tell Marsalis to start re-writing his concerto for her?
“I wouldn’t say I was hesitant. I know him well and have known him for a long time,” she said, before pausing to reconsider the question.
“I don’t know. Perhaps I was a little hesitant. I kind of learned during the process. It’s a delicate thing when somebody is writing something incredibly personal for you to play. And you want to say things that are perceived as you would like them to be, because it’s kind of dangerous mixing words and (musical) notes.
“There’s a lot of intelligent conversation that can go on. What someone is playing has such definitive power... On the other hand, my hesitancy to tell Wynton anything wasn’t because I feared his reaction, but because I feared how seriously he would take what I’d say. I’d make a momentary comment and - the next thing I knew - he rewritten a complete passage! So, seeing that happen a couple of times, I was fairly considered and waited longer before tellling him anything.”
Benedetti was just 17 when she met and performed for Marsalis at New York’s Lincoln Center, where her audience also included two other legends - soprano Kathleen Battle and fellow violinist Itzhak Perlman.
“It was quite an overwhelming night!” she recalled. “I was extremely nervous, not least because Itzhak was sitting right in front of me!
“The whole evening was filled with so many (famous) names and grandeur that, even at this age, I would be overwhelmed by it. I probably took it more in stride then than I would now.”
Before befriending Marsalis, the then-teen-aged Benedetti was a fan of French violin great Stéphane Grappelli and Canadian jazz piano giant Oscar Peterson.
Did the trumpeter introduce her to the music of such American jazz violin greats as Stuff Smith, Joe Venutti and Ray Nance?
“All of those violinists,” Benedetti replied. “It was nothing enforced by Wynton, but he encouraged me to listen to such a huge diversity of music. Some of it seemed directly related (to the concerto) and some less so. He would share things with me, out of interest and intrigue, that he loved the sound of.”
In addition to improvisation, jazz violin playing can utilize certain sounds and instrumental approaches - slurs, bends, spontaneous syncopations - rarely employed in classical music.
“It’s a difficult balance to strike,” Benedetti stressed. “On the one hand, you want to bring to life the extremely varied, and sometimes otherworldly, story of the concerto. On the other hand, you don’t want to caricature styles that are not your own. So my natural disposition is (to be) extremely cautious.
“At first, I’m very conservative (with new music). Then, with time, I start to explore a little more and be a bit more experimental. Even then, I’m loathe to sound like I’m imitating something else. So I’d say it’s a delicate process.”
Up until the dawn of the 20th century, classical musicians knew how to improvise and were called upon to do so during concert performances.
Then, almost as if a giant magic wand had been waved, improvisation became a lost art in classical music. Some observers dispute this, but Benedetti is most assuredly not one of them.
“It’s not an arguable concept, at all. It’s pretty much fact,” she lamented.
“Beethoven was more interested in improvising with his students than teaching them composition or playing his own compositions with them. He’d improvise an enormously high number of his performances and it was such a common practice that you can’t consider him without that component...
“Now, these are separate categories. Then again, only now do we have the centuries of classical repertoire written for violin that you’re expected to learn and know. So I try to know as much as I can about the variety of directions that instrumental music has gone in. But I basically end up more and more confused, the more I know... You have to interact with the music with the utmost integrity you can find for yourself.”
On her 2013 album, “Homecoming - A Scottish Fantasy,” Benedetti teamed with top Celtic music artists Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham for a collection of Scottish orchestral music, airs, laments and reels.
Was she comfortable during the improvisational sections she played with Bain and Cunningham?
“No, not at all!” replied Benedetii, who this summer became the youngest recipient ever of Queen Elizabeth‘s prestigious Medal for Music.
“What can I say? I generally felt very uncomfortable - not with Aly and Phil - but with my own playing of their music. I just feel like I was constantly not quite making the mark. But it was a fascinating experience and very much in the spirit of collaboration.”
In that same spirit of collaboration, have she and Marsalis ever performed together?
Benedetti laughed heartily.
“No,” she said. “But next time you speak to him, tell him he should really consider it!”
“Romance, Mystery, Marsalis,” a San Diego Symphony Jacobs Masterworks concert, featuring violinist Nicola Benedetti and conductor Cristian M?celaru
When: 8 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall, 600 B St., downtown
Phone: (619) 235-0804