The last big thing to come out of Scotland and make international headlines was the deep-fried Mars bar: a battered, oozing, greasy concoction available in fine chip shops across the country. For once, though, the Scots have truly delivered: 19-year-old Nicola Benedetti is a classical violinist with naturally pouty lips, flawless olive skin, and, if the critics are to be believed, the talent to match.
Benedetti, who was born in Ayreshire, shot to fame in the U.K. when she became the first Scot to win the coveted BBC Young Musician of the Year prize in 2004, at the age of 16. You could practically hear the record execs panting. That same year, she signed a six-album, £1-million recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon, and what followed was a media frenzy the likes of which have rarely been seen in the classical-music world.
She was second on Scotland on Sunday’s list of the Top 100 Most Eligible Women in 2004, described as “a friendly, down-to-earth girl who will happily relax to Norah Jones, Joss Stone or a bit of R&B”. In April of 2005, her premiere release entered the classical charts at No. 2, the highest-ever position for a debut violinist in the first week of sales, and even made it onto the pop charts. Locally, the buzz is set to build as she readies for her premiere performance with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra this Saturday through Monday (October 28 to 30), when she’ll get the chance to display all her technical and interpretive skills in Alexander Glazunov’s Violin Concerto.
To outsiders, it might look like an overnight rags-to-riches success story. But the truth is, Benedetti was never in rags—her father, Gio Benedetti, is a millionaire entrepreneur—and her triumph at the BBC competition was the culmination of years of hard work.
“I think possibly it may look like [instant stardom] more from the outside than it ever felt to me,” explained Benedetti recently, from a hotel room in Glasgow. She had just returned from a week of concerts in Asia and was preparing for a performance in Edinburgh. “I never, and still don’t whatsoever, feel that suddenly I’d gone from trying to make it to ”˜Wow, I’ve made it now.’”
Benedetti received her first violin when she was four, a moment that reduced the shy preschooler to tears. (“I was a bit scared of the teacher,” she explains.) By the age of nine, she had passed all eight grades of musical exams, and in 1997, at age 10, she entered the Menuhin School for gifted young musicians in Surrey, England. In 2000, she performed with the Royal Scottish National Opera and the Scottish Opera, and two years later she won the U.K.’s Brilliant Prodigy Competition. That same year, she decided to leave the Menuhin School and took up private lessons with Maciej Rakowski, former leader of the English Chamber Orchestra.
Benedetti continues to study with Rakowski and insists—despite the photo shoots, the interviews, and the ringtones she recorded last year in a bid to engage the youth market—that she’s doing it all for the love of the music. “I started doing this not for record contracts or for pictures in the paper or anything like that,” she maintains. “I want to be playing better and doing more interesting things musically in 20 years’ time than I am now. So whatever huge ups and downs I have today, I’m just trying to see that as part of a much, much longer line. That’s why nothing that’s instant—like a story in the paper or a record contract—nothing that’s instant like that will either make me as happy or unhappy as how I feel I’m doing with my music. Because that really is where my priorities lie.”
It might all sound like platitudes, but Benedetti seems to mean what she says. Last May, she hired a new full-time manager, Steve Abbott, who has produced albums for Jeff Buckley and Mercury Rev, to help her devise her long-term strategy.
“Hopefully, I’ve created a situation where I’m really controlling what I’m going to do,” she says. “I think it’s constantly a juggling act. Being in my position, you do have people pushing and pulling you in this direction and that, telling you what is best for you....In this business, being the so-called artist, people don’t always tell you the truth. That’s a scary position to be in sometimes. And that’s one thing that I’m confident with the manager that I work with now, is that he does tell me the truth.”
As for the fuss being made over her looks, she takes a philosophical view. “Whether popularity”¦is affected slightly by more superficial things or things I can’t control, being a young woman, I can’t do anything about that. The standard of performance and honesty I have for violin-playing and for my art is something that I can control and something that I will never, ever cheat with.”