Nicola Benedetti: The Silver Violin Tour

27 Mar 2013 in Highland, Music

Empire Theatre, Eden Court, Inverness, 26 March 2013

IT IS just about three years to the day since Scotland’s first lady of the violin made her last trio tour performance at Eden Court, so it was too much of a temptation to look back in Northings’ archives to remind myself of what I had written on that occasion, and to ponder over what had changed and what had not.

One thing that had scarcely changed was the programme booklet. Let me copy my comments from March 2010: “Five pounds! And that for a publication that was useless on the night as the print contrast made it unreadable in the subdued light of the theatre auditorium. When will the graphic artists who design these commercial souvenirs destined for the bin climb down from their ivory towers and see how ordinary people struggle to cope with the glossy trash that they have produced?” [James – careful, this is getting to be a bit of an obsession. . . – Ed.]

Nicola Benedetti

Nicola Benedetti

To be fair, £5 in 2013 is not as outrageous as it was in 2010, but of the 32 pages, 16 were adverts and five were photographs of the very photogenic Nicola Benedetti. At least this time the pages of information were constructive rather than the error-strewn trash of 2010, but still we have to suffer the idiocy of small white type on a black background making it impossible to read David Nice’s helpful notes in a darkened auditorium. Let me lay down a challenge to whoever it is in the Benedetti organisation who is responsible for such things. Next time Nicola and her chums do one of these tours, try printing the important pages in the brochure in black ink on a white background. It may not be trendy, but you will make some friends among the older members of the audience.

This concert in The Silver Violin Tour was much more structured and had a sense of creativity and direction compared to three years back when the programme was little more than a collection of pot boilers. A brief welcome and introduction from Nicola Benedetti was followed by a short film about the composer Erich-Wolfgang Korngold who was to be featured during the first half. It is high time that the 21st century provided more champions for Korngold, a versatile artist who settled in Hollywood after escaping from the Nazi domination of Vienna.

The six fairly short pieces that made up the first half, played by Nicola and her pianist Alexei Grynyuk, had a connecting theme of triumph over adversity, much of it projected in the world of cinema. The main theme by John Williams from the Spielberg film Schindler’s List evoked the heroism of industrialist Oskar Schindler in protecting his Jewish workers from Nazi tyranny.

Then the fiery Tzigane by Maurice Ravel brought out the resilience of the widely despised gypsy peoples. Interestingly this piece was also in Ms Benedetti’s programme three years ago, but this was a very different interpretation. Then it was excessively gutsy with too much attack – now it was more cerebral with the power being in the emotion. I suspect that this can be partly attributed to the change in Nicola’s violin to the “Gabriel” Stradavarius with which she has developed such a strong bond.

Enter Mr Korngold with two extracts from his 1920 opera Die tote Stadt. The hauntingly beautiful ‘Marietta’s Song’ is often considered Korngold’s finest tune, the epitome of late Romantic Viennese music, and the transposition from soprano voice to the strings of the violin only increases the poignancy of the music. This intensity was continued in the waltz-song of the love sick Pierrot in Marietta’s troupe of actors.

Continuing with the connection of triumph over adversity, Nicola and Alexei turned to Shostakovich, who was well known for his difficulties with the terrors of Stalin. After the death of the dictator, Shostakovich felt more liberated in his compositions and produced the suite that accompanied the film The Gadfly. From this the best known extract is the ‘Romance’, delightfully performed following a brief introduction by the violinist.

The last programmed piece of the first half took the music back to the 19th century for Camille Saint-Saëns’ dazzling Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso – a real opportunity to display style and technique if there ever was one! Before we went off for our ice creams, there was one more repeat of three years ago. Nicola’s first appearance on the stage at Eden Court came before she had obtained wide public recognition, but that is not to say that she was not being recognised in the classical music world. Shortly before her success in the 2004 BBC Young Musician competition, a very young Nicola was brought to Inverness by the Scottish Ensemble to partner Clio Gould playing Mozart. The tables are now turned and it is Nicola’s practice to bring onto the stage a young local violinist for a short duet. Tuesday evening will forever be a musical highlight for Shana Grant as she was mentored and partnered by Benedetti in a beautiful rendition of the slow air Leaving Lerwick Harbour.

After the break it was back to the movies for a visual introduction by the trio to Tchaikovsky’s epic Piano Trio in A minor, Op 50, which took up the whole of the second half. It was not a musical genre that appealed to the composer, but once he had been presented with a need for such a work, as a tribute and a memorial to his friend and mentor Nikolay Grigoryevich Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky produced one of the giants and one of the most emotionally draining compositions in the piano trio repertoire.

For this trip on a roller-coaster, Nicola Benedetti and Alexei Grynyuk were joined by the cellist Leonard Elschenbroich, and together they performed what was really the meat of the whole evening. In the first of two movements pianist Alexei was allowed to dominate as Rubinstein was first and foremost a pianist, but the support from both Nicola and Leonard was substantial. It was in the second movement that the real emotion ruled, with a short theme on the piano based on a Russian folk air followed by eleven virtuosic variations involving the whole trio and a breath-holding coda that built and built to a final diminuendo and silence.

If there is one element over which Nicola Benedetti makes a special effort, it is to communicate with her audience. So it was that she took a few questions from members of the audience before introducing her sister Stephanie, another violinist in the family, and Djordje Gajic, the Professor of Accordion at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland to join the trio in a rousing encore, the tango Por una cabeza by Carlos Gardel.

So, overall, a well constructed, well presented, well performed show that targeted a popular audience seeking the reaction “I enjoyed that”. So was I the only one to leave the packed Empire Theatre feeling slightly disappointed? As I said three years ago, it was impossible not to be carried away by the enthusiasm of the audience and it does the soul no harm every so often to be entertained by an evening of pot-boilers. I went home having enjoyed the evening, which was about an hour longer than most classical recitals, but worried about what effect this sort of event has on the broader classical music scene.

I do not begrudge Nicola Benedetti her success – she has worked hard to get where she is – but she is still early in her career and her playing still has a long way to go before it is fully developed. The same can be said for the friends who shared the stage with her. Six (now nine) years ago a photogenic local girl won the most high profile music competition in the UK on the first time the finals were staged in Scotland.

Since then, the marketing muscle of Universal Classics and IMG Management has taken over so that a very good, but still developing, artist can attract Full House notices and an audience paying top dollar that, for the most part, does not bother to support artists who are far more accomplished, both technically and musically, who travel to Inverness to give far superior performances with ticket prices only a fraction of what they were happy to pay here. In the current economic climate, with great pressure on funding for the arts, we must give much more support to live concerts or we are at risk of being left with only mass-market, commercially viable, universally popular music, and that is what this concert was all about.

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”.

And finally. Let me join in with the comments made by my colleagues and on other pages of this site. Ten years ago Robert Livingston and Kenny Mathieson had the vision and courage to set up Northings as a vehicle for the creative arts. Because of their hard work and inspired leadership it has been a valued and enormous success. Now some bean-counter has decreed that its day has passed and as a consequence creativity must give way to commercialism. Let us hope that classical music maintains its support of unknown, often modern, gems and does not have to go down the road of pre-digested pap.

This is to be my last review for Northings (and indeed, the last of all, for now at least – Ed.). My thanks go to Robert and Kenny for their faith and support, and to all you readers for logging on and keeping in touch through our pages.

© James Munro, 2013