Nicola Benedetti wows in Wynton Marsalis’s Violin Concerto at the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC Proms 2022 [28], Prom 67 – Adès, Marsalis, Britten, Bernstein: Nicola Benedetti (violin), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Thomas Søndergård (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 6.9.2022. (CS)

Nicola Benedetti with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Thomas Søndergård (c) BBC/Mark Allan

Thomas Adès – ‘Three-Piece Suite’ from Powder Her Face (Suite No.1)
Wynton Marsalis – Violin Concerto
Benjamin Britten – ‘Four Sea Interludes’ from Peter Grimes
Leonard Bernstein – ‘Symphonic Dances’ from West Side Story

This was a Prom which set out to amaze, entertain and delight its audience.  And, it succeeded in spades.  At its core was a fusion of classical, jazz, blues and Scottish folk music, in the form of Wynton Marsalis’s Violin Concerto, performed at the Proms for the first time by Nicola Benedetti for whom it was written and for whose talents it is tailor-made.  It’s an incredibly complex piece, the varied and many conversations constantly shifting and the mood changing.  It requires the soloist to be a storyteller and a showman, playing many roles in its mesmerising narrative.

Benedetti shaped the drama with supreme confidence and imaginative insight.  Her communicativeness and warmth are second to none and the full-to-the-rafters audience were rapt by her virtuosity and generosity.  The first movement ‘Rhapsody’ began with a wisp of violin sound, seemingly drawn out of the silence or pulled from dreams, which Benedetti made bloom with sweet richness and a lovely tranquillity, the full tone of her Stradivarius floating easily to the reaches of the Hall.  Gradually pulse and passion accrued, the solo line discursive, exuberant and vivid, coaxing the orchestra into flamboyance.  There were some lovely dialogues between the stratospheric, glistening solo violin and harp, and in the quieter episodes the orchestral texture had a beautifully pillowy softness.  The sheer detail and vitality demanded much from players and listeners alike, but Benedetti’s personality and presence brought the parts into a coherent whole, and the movement came to a close with stamping feet and a whistling solo that was jaunty and teasing.

The ’Rondo Burlesque’ was a kaleidoscopic romp, brilliantly executed, its assured swing irresistible.  At one point, Benedetti wandered across the RAH stage to have fun rhythmically duetting with a drummer.  ‘Blues’ felt like the heart of the work.   Benedetti found lovely colours and textures here, the woodwind murmuring and bubbling around her searching phrases, the strings answering with comforting warm homophony.  Contemplation was raucously tossed aside in ‘Hootenanny’ – described by Marsalis as a ‘whimsical barnyard throw-down’ – in which Scottish and American folk music merged in a boisterous, gleeful, clapping-fuelled romp.  The Concerto requires much stamina and Benedetti’s energy and focus were remarkable, though the moment that made the most impact was the quietest one: when, at the close, Benedetti slowly made her way through the orchestra and off-stage, her violin gradually diminishing into stillness.

Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Thomas Søndergård (c) BBC/Mark Allan

Thomas Søndergård, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s Musical Director since 2018, had evidently readied his musicians thoroughly and expertly.  They had enormous fun and generated excitement and energy.  Marsalis has written of the challenges of bringing diverse genres together: ‘The shared vocabulary between the jazz orchestra and the modern orchestra sits largely in the areas of texture and instrumental technique.  Form, improvisation, harmony, and methods of thematic development are very different.  The biggest challenges are: how to orchestrate the nuance and virtuosity in jazz and blues for an ensemble not versed in those styles (a technical issue); and how to create a consistent groove without a rhythm section (a musical/philosophical issue).’  I’m not sure that he entirely marries his means: at times it feels as if less would have been more – that smaller forces might have taken some of the weight off the complexity of the material.  But, in other ways the sheer intricacy is a joy and Benedetti’s performance was uplifting.  When she was learning the Concerto, in 2015, she commented, “There is something that I haven’t got to yet, but that I know this music is going to ask of me: the ability to let go of barriers and inhibitions; to just trust myself and everyone around me to be really bare”.  She’s certainly got there now, and her delight in her discoveries was inspiring.  It was smiles all round at the RAH.

The ’Four Sea Interludes’ from Britten’s Peter Grimes seemed a rather strange work to programme alongside Marsalis’s extrovert Concerto, though with Bernstein’s ‘Symphonic Dances’ from West Side Story, which closed the concert, it made a pair of works drawn from the theatre.  Søndergård took pains to make clear Britten’s skill as a craftsman and orchestrator.  I’d have liked a little more expansiveness at the start of ‘Dawn’, though.  The gleaming high violin line, clarinet burbles and brooding horns were preciously sculpted but I didn’t feel the breadth of the Suffolk seascape, nor the latent power and danger of the ocean.  There was some very fine violin playing though – spot-on tuning in the tricky unison passages – and the woodwind were no less impressive in the intricate motivic and rhythmic interplay in ‘Sunday Morning’, which was busy but relaxed.  I found ‘Storm’ a bit underwhelming, the surge of spray, wind and rain lacking a real sense of menace – the orchestral snarls and sneers felt a bit polite – but Søndergård wasn’t indulgent with the tempo in ‘Moonlight’, creating a persuasive flow and capturing both the darkness and the light.

The concert was framed by more dance and stylistic fusion.  Ostentatious showmanship returned in Bernstein’s ‘Symphonic Dances’, and the RSNO seemed entirely at home with the Latin/jazz-inflected idiom, relishing the opportunity to let rip with abandon.  But, if there was vitality and virtuosity, there was poignancy too, and Søndergård both highlighted the stylistic contrasts and bound the diversity into a coherent whole which told its story engagingly.  He gradually pushed the Prologue forwards, gathering momentum, and Mambo and Cha-Cha were athletic and lithe, but not too hectic.  There was a good tempo for ‘Sometime’ too, not overly languorous but richly lyrical, driven with feeling and nostalgia.

Søndergård favours precision and clarity over flamboyance, but the orchestra were similarly uninhibited in Thomas Adès’ Suite No.1 from his first opera, Powder her Face, which opened the concert.  Textures and sonorities were crisp and droll, and the musicians relished the protean postmodernism of the score which is simultaneously louche and learned.  The Overture sneered, sashayed, whooped and whistled with a boozy lilt – a drunken dance of asymmetrical 1930s shimmying.  There were splashes and spurts of colour; whispers and then roars.  The Waltz was especially witty – all woodwind squeaks and dry string pizzicatos – as two collided with three and the dance seemed dizzied by its own complexity.  This is music that is amused by itself and amuses in equal measure.

Claire Seymour

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