When Nicola Benedetti burst on to the classical music scene as a teenager, the industry thought it had finally cracked the elusive code to commercial success.
The hardworking Scottish violinist established herself as a young and popular virtuoso with a string of high-profile performances: these included her debut appearance with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra as a 13-year-old, performing in front of UK royalty in 1999, as well as the fact that in 2002, as a 15-year-old, she won the British television talent quest Brilliant Prodigy.
Her fierce determination and immense talent, coupled with her pop-star image, made record labels scramble to secure her on their books. The winning bid was a £1 million (then Dh7m) recording contract with the label giant Deutsche Grammophon in 2004 – which was, until then, an unheard-of price tag for a teenage classical musician.
Reflecting on the fame and accolades, the now 30-year-old Benedetti explains that her success came at a cost. When she looks back at her coverage in mainstream media, and the reactions from the public, she realises that the focus was ultimately more on her personality than her music.
"I had more acclaim than I necessarily deserved, and it did cause a little bit of an identity crisis," she says in the run up to her Abu Dhabi Festival performance on Monday at Emirates Palace. The show acts as a teaser for the festival, with the main performances beginning in March.
“You realise that you’re a pawn in a system that needs to write about somebody new. I had some tough times reconciling with all of that. But, so much of it was a choice. It wasn’t like it was forced upon me. I chose to say ‘yes’ to interviews and to say ‘yes’ to doing this and doing that, and recording and signing a deal, and all this stuff. I don’t have any feeling of pity towards myself.”
Born in a modest household in the village of West Kilbride, on the west coast of Scotland, to a Scottish mother and Italian immigrant father, Benedetti began playing the violin at the age of four. She has been studying diligently ever since.
Chatting to her from her London home, one gets the sense that behind her genuinely warm demeanour lies a hard-nosed attitude fuelled by the quest for excellence. This sentiment flashes in response to questions regarding her childhood.
She expresses no regret about a childhood laced with rigorous training and performances. “I have zero connection to that thing that people talk about, like a lost childhood. I can’t tell you how little I relate to that sense. I don’t even really know what that means,” she says.
“If there’s any looking back and regretful feelings that I ever experienced, it’s that I wish I had worked harder at stuff and I wish I’d been more serious, and I wish I’d been more aware of how much there is in the world to learn. If I have any regret, it’s in that direction.”
Benedetti says that her sense of determination comes from her parents, particularly her father, Giovanni, who went from owning a dry cleaning business in the Scottish town of Irvine to becoming a successful entrepreneur.
“There is a genetic ambitious drive that has been passed on,” she says. “I also think that my parents never forgot their extremely humble upbringings. They understood that nothing comes easy and that it’s up to you to try to make the most of what’s presented to you, and you should just grab that with both hands.”
Using that sense of grit, Benedetti went from winning the 2004 BBC Young Musician of the Year at 16, which resulted in the impressive record contract, to launching a busy career as a successful touring recording artist, ongoing today.
Her 2012 album, The Silver Violin – which includes accessible takes on film scores by John Williams (Schindler's List) and Howard Shore (Eastern Promises) – even cracked the top 30 of the UK pop chart, and went a long way towards her goal of bringing classical music closer to the masses.
Surprisingly, Benedetti viewed that attempt as misguided at best. She has found that the more popularity her work has gained, the more the resulting opportunities, from commercial endorsements to television appearances, were about capturing the moment rather than furthering the music.
“What I realised was, the more my music sounded like pop, the more money would be put into marketing, the more attention it would get, the more TV appearances I would get,” she says.
“I found it heartbreaking … to realise that if I want to play the most serious classical music that I have the option to play, it’s going to be less mainstream and it’s going to be less popular. It has nothing really to do with marketing. It’s just a reality.”
Benedetti points to the enduring appeal of Vivaldi's masterwork, Four Seasons. While it is a masterpiece, she says, there is no convincing reason to explain why it remains popular nearly three centuries on: "Even certain pieces of Beethoven – they can manage to have phenomenal popularity. Those things just are what they are. They have that entity and you can't manufacture it. It's a complicated subject."
That said, such realisation resulted in Benedetti reframing her idea of success, and gave her a steely focus on the music itself, rather than how it will be received. Her Abu Dhabi Festival show tonight is a case in point. Teaming up with the experimental Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment – an ensemble of masters performing on period instruments from the 18th and 19th century – Benedetti aims to explore new facets of well-known pieces, such as Beethoven's Symphony No 4.
"These performances are being done without conductors," she says. "So there's a level of autonomy for the musicians themselves and a level of participation that has to come from every single musician in the orchestra."
She agrees there is a jazz attitude to such freewheeling on stage. “It’s closer to either a jazz orchestra or a chamber orchestra where the continuity itself is not coming from one direction, it’s coming from many directions. I think that constant give and take is going to be something I will encourage all of the attendees of the concert to kind of participate in. It’s something that should be a little bit more conversational and hopefully more filled with risk and fun,” she says. “Of course, it will be just as formal in the presentation, but perhaps more informal in how we dialogue with each other on the stage. I hope people can embrace that as much as possible and maybe enter into that spirit.”
Her performances are praised for their technicality and sense of unbridled emotion but Benedetti says that while there is a connection between her state of mind and her performance, they don't always interact.
"They both affect each other," she explains. "If I have a bad concert, I'm just not a nice person until the next day. At the same time, If I don't feel good – if I've had an argument with somebody or I receive bad news – that does not mean I'm going to play badly in concert."
But yes, she explains, “there is that connection in both directions. To me it shows how music itself can be so powerful that it can lift you outside of the mood you are in.
“I think that’s a lot of the reason why people go to concerts. They want to be taken away from stuff that’s more mundane.”
Nicola Benedetti and The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment perform at Emirates Palace at 8pm on Monday, February 19 as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival. Tickets begin from Dh175 from www.abudhabifestival.ae