sforty-five years since its inception, the Edinburgh International Festival finally has its first female director – and its first Scotsman. In March, it was announced that concert violinist Nicola Benedetti would take over from Fergus Linehan, who held the position for eight years. Benedetti was born in West Kilbride, Ayrshire. Now 35, she has spent her life at the height of British classical music, leading the National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain at the age of eight; study at the Yehudi Menuhin school for young musicians under the maestro from 10; and winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year award at age 16.
Benedetti believes this total immersion in the highest culture has given her the vision and expertise to lead Scotland’s premier arts festival. “Since I was 16, I’ve seen an average of 90 to 100 concerts a year,” she tells me over mint tea in the lobby of a chic 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 around the corner.
However, immersed in only one facet of high culture, the EIF encompasses theatre, dance and pop as well as classical music. “Well, classical music counts for a pretty large percentage what the Edinburgh International Festival has to offer,” she counters, before saying she’s been inundated with offers of help in the other areas – heartwarming, she adds, from plenty of men. “They’re not sitting there thinking, ‘There’s a woman taking that job, let’s sit here and watch her fail.'”
In addition to supportive colleagues, Benedetti also needs formidable time management skills as she plans to maintain her career as a musician. “Just wish me luck!” she says. “There was a lot of talk about it throughout the application process. Everyone agreed that it was not only possible, but vital that I continue to perform.” She says she’ll be “pickier, more decisive, and I’m just less available to do the array of things I was doing before.” But also that, after Covid, and in light of the climate emergency, like many musicians, she would have wanted to reassess how much she had traveled anyway. Whatever happens, she continues to play 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 won’t change.”
If she takes the job of festival director in the bravado she puts on her performances, her EIF will be a must-have. At this summer’s Proms, Benedetti was at her most exciting moment playing a violin concerto written for her by American jazz musician Wynton Marsalis. Combining the technical and emotional mastery she has over her instrument with boastful showmanship, the concert saw Benedetti fly riskily to the very limits of her virtuosity – when Marsalis composed the 43-minute piece, she demanded that he make it harder to perform. to play. Nevertheless, she remained in complete control, whether navigating an intricate duet with a drummer or walking off stage while still playing at the end of the concert, her luminous sound faded into the distance.
Marsalis’ work is one of three violin concertos written for her – the other two are by Mark Simpson, who won Young Musician of the Year 12 years after Benedetti, and her fellow Scotsman James MacMillan. “It’s a phenomenal honor,” she says. “Three such different musical minds and voices writing in such different languages that I can all pick up the phone and ask a question” – in contrast to the deceased white men who make up most of the classical repertoire.
Just as Marsalis’ concert brought together Scottish folk and black American jazz and blues traditions, Benedetti says her festival will make it her job to reveal the links between Scottish culture and that of the rest of the world. “It doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the pipes in Scotland – I will be – but how does the drone of the pipes compare 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?”
Explorations like this have sometimes led to accusations of cultural appropriation — for example, when Inuit artist 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 think about those things.” As long as people on her team talk openly about the issues, challenge their own prejudices, and work “with sincerity and seriousness” to make the festival as diverse and internationalist as possible, she says, “I’m not saying we will win” no mistakes, but we will do it with the right heart.”
There is certainly no doubt about her ambition. “I’m interested in presenting the complexity of the truth,” she says. “There’s no better place to do that in the world of the arts, and there’s no better place to do it than condensed into a three-week festival where you can showcase the messiness of the human story.” But what does that actually mean that she’s going to program? “I think that’s something that will have to wait a little closer to next year’s festival announcement,” she whines, sipping her mint tea.
One thing is certain: the festival will not be silenced. Benedetti is passionate about giving contemporary composers a free rein to explore their obsessions. “In today’s classical presentations, we have this tradition of five-minute contemporary work,” she says, wryly meaning that the typical program — often at the Proms — sees a short work by a modern composer as amuse-bouche for the orchestra. getting into the serious business of, say, a Brahms symphony.
“If I want to hear something from someone who writes music these days, I really want to hear it,” she says. “It’s not my job to apologize for the length of things. I think a climax moment is made more powerful because you’ve been through so many other things 30 minutes before that.”
Benedetti is convinced that she can bring long, complex and subtle material to a large audience and ensure that everyone will enjoy it. In fact, she says, “that’s the dedication of my life.” Context, she says, is key. “None of my family plays music except my sister,” she says, referring to Stephanie Benedetti, who performs with Clean Bandit. “I’ve been to living rooms full of people who don’t play nor listen to the music I grew up playing, and I know if I tell them the context of when and where and why The Lark Ascending was written for two minutes, and then play I them The Lark Ascending, the experience they have is not just a little bit different, it’s the difference between hearing an abstract sound that sounds quite beautiful and being moved to tears.”
She’s eager to continue the free, mass-access performances Linehan initiated, and says the festival will do everything it can to make everyone feel comfortable, whether they’re a classical music lover or a complete novice. “I want to make sure that everyone who walks through our doors doesn’t feel like, ‘Shit, I’m about to do something wrong.’ And that they also feel prepared for what’s about to happen, even something as simple as knowing this piece is going to be 45 minutes, or this composer loved it when you clapped if you felt like it.” That said, nothing stands in the way of “the sanctity of two and a half thousand people listening quietly and intently to let the acoustic music on stage speak its fullest.”
The longer you listen to Benedetti talks, the more impressive she seems. When it comes to leadership, she is like the anti-Liz Truss in her unwavering commitment to the most sublime manifestations of human endeavor. She says her main task at the EIF is to “search for, celebrate and present the highest manifestations of art that exist around the world in all its forms”. She doesn’t just aim for the good. Her festival, she says, will have “an absolutely clear and strong vision that makes people think, ‘I feel like going through this will change my life for the better right now.'” It’s a formidable challenge, but Benedetti is ready. “We have to live in that space, what else do we do?”