Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti was 17 when she met American jazz legend Wynton Marsalis. A rising classical star, she was on her own in New York for the first time for a performance at Lincoln Center.
“Kathleen Battle sang in the same concert and Elie Wiesel spoke,” she recalls. “Itzhak Perlman was in the front row. It was the most extraordinary day of my life. That’s when Wynton heard me play for the first time.”
Marsalis was instantly impressed by Benedetti’s sound and skill. Fans of each other’s music, the two struck up a conversation that developed into a lasting friendship. More than a decade later, Benedetti says their connection is less about instrumental performance and more centered around “common views about music’s power and how it lies within a grander context.”
Afro-American slaves ... played fiddles, so I learned how to play fiddle tunes and improvise on them on my horn. I needed to know that language.
Thursday night at the Hollywood Bowl, Benedetti and the Los Angeles Philharmonic will give Marsalis’ “Violin Concerto in D” its West Coast premiere. The concerto, which Marsalis composed specifically for Benedetti, is the most tangible product of their unique musical relationship.
“I always liked the violin and I liked fiddle tunes,” Marsalis says. “I like that tradition. I knew growing up that there were many Afro-American slaves who played fiddles, so I learned how to play fiddle tunes and improvise on them on my horn. I needed to know that language.”
In conversations over the years, Benedetti encouraged Marsalis to explore his passion for the fiddle through composition. “I would always say to him, ‘If you love the violin so much, why don’t you write something for it?’”
It took time, but Marsalis finally agreed. He says his inspiration for the piece was as much Benedetti as her instrument.
“When I wrote Congo Square,” he explains, “it was for the great African drum master Yacub Abby. Meeting him inspired me to write that piece. I’ve known Nicola for 12 years now and watching her development and the conversations we’ve had over the years inspired me to write this piece for her. Writing for another musician allows me to learn something from them.”
When Benedetti received Marsalis’ first draft of the “Violin Concerto in D,” she asked him to rework her part to make it more challenging. “She told me she needed something that would make her practice,” Marsalis remembers. “That’s unusual. Most the time, when I write music, people say it’s too hard.”
Marsalis is no stranger to virtuosic classical music. Early in his career he won a Grammy for classical soloist with an orchestra. YouTube clips of vintage videos reveal the young, tuxedo-clad Marsalis skillfully maneuvering his way through a Haydn trumpet concerto.
When he set out to compose the “Violin Concerto in D,” Marsalis avoided classical idioms.
“I’m a jazz musician,” he explains. “I’m very comfortable with classical music, but I am not trying to prove anything in classical music. I’m not interested in sounding like other people. When it comes to American music — New Orleans music, blues music, music that is in the Anglo-Celtic tradition, Afro-American music — that’s what I know, that’s what I love, that’s where I’m comfortable and that’s what I’m about.”
Benedetti has embraced the opportunity this piece has provided her to delve into Wynton’s musical world. “There can be an approach from the outset to American music that is quite wrongfully segregated in regards to color and geography,” she says. “People tend to think fiddle music belongs to one region and one type of look and jazz music belongs to another region and type of look. What Wynton will expose you to very quickly is how integrated music was long before the country was integrated.”
I would always say to him, ‘If you love the violin so much, why don’t you write something for it?’
Premiering this concerto is just one of the many risks Benedetti has taken as she has matured from young virtuoso to seasoned professional. Her recording projects over the years have been diverse, including standard classical repertoire, Scottish folk music and film scores. Like Marsalis, she embraces the hard work that new musical challenges demand.
“I always go back to when I was around 6 years old,” she says. “When I heard classical melodies for the first time, I was moved to tears. It was such a visceral and instinctual connection to the music itself that has only grown throughout my life. I go to the second half of practically every concert I play. I’m the happiest person in the audience because I still just can’t believe I’m getting to hear this incredible music.”
Benedetti’s favorite parts of Marsalis’ violin concerto are numerous. She gushes about the luscious opening melodic line of the first movement. She also loves the second movement, a rondo brimming with “humor and complete raucous craziness.”
“That’s a side of Wynton’s personality I recognize in the music,” she says. “It’s truly wild and so quintessentially him. It’s not like anything else. It’s really absolutely his sound and his color and his vibe.”
Marsalis’ favorite part of his first violin concerto? “Nicola’s sound,” he says without a moment’s hesitation. “I just like her sound.”
Wynton Marsalis “Violin Concerto in D”
Nicola Benedetti with the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m., Thursday, July 28
Tickets: $8 to $113
Info: (323) 850-2000, www.hollywoodbowl.com
Follow The Times’ arts team @culturemonster.