8th November, 2004_

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A crying waste of young talent

Violinist Nicola Benedetti.
Picture: Robert Perry

by Kenneth Walton

IT’S BEEN QUITE a year for Nicola Benedetti, the talented teenage virtuoso violinist from Ayrshire. When I first interviewed her last November - prior to her first major solo appearances in Scotland on tour with the Scottish Ensemble - the then 16-year-old was relatively unknown and, like most girls her age, about to sit her exams.

At the weekend, however, she was up there under the glittering lights of Glasgow’s Radisson SAS Hotel alongside pop glitterati such as Marti Pellow, The Darkness and Donovan, receiving a Tartan Clef award at an event billed as "Scotland’s answer to the Brits". Just the ticket for letting instant fame go to your head, you might think? Easy prey for the instant image-makers of today’s plastic-coated recording industry?

That she has resisted the lure of the quick buck in the glam-classical arena so far is to her credit.

So let’s not take anything away from Benedetti’s achievement in picking up the one token classical award on Saturday evening. Over the past 12 months, she has been the subject of a BBC Scotland documentary and won the BBC Young Musician of the Year Award with an exceptional performance of Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto in the competition final with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at the Usher Hall. Over the summer she appeared with the Royal Scottish National and Scottish Chamber Orchestras, and last month played her debut recital at London’s prestigious Wigmore Hall.

She’s soon to be the star turn at a charity concert in the Royal Festival Hall, guest soloist with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and next year undertakes an tour across America with the adventurous New York group Eos, culminating at the city’s Carnegie Hall. Nearer to home, she is scheduled to entertain MSPs privately this Saturday at Holyrood Palace, where politicians will be showering themselves with awards. Slowly but surely, and with guarded caution, Benedetti is building up a solid solo career.

Not surprisingly, the media has latched on to Benedetti’s innocent glamour. She has looks as well as talent, and a cool confidence and sophistication that shine through in both her playing and her ability to talk a careful game. She breezed through the inevitable storm of press interviews that followed her Young Musician victory, brushing aside the snub from First Minister Jack McConnell - when it was disclosed he was slow to congratulate her - with the grace and integrity of someone twice her age.

"Benedetti may not have the polished perfection of some young virtuosos, but she has a generosity of spirit which in the long run will be more important," wrote one London reviewer of her recent Wigmore Hall appearance.

She herself says: "I want a progressive career that will last a long time."

Next in line is the record deal. There’s one in the offing, though she’s not yet prepared to reveal which label it is with. Initially she hopes to record the Szymanowski concerto that won her the BBC competition, along with "other pieces close to [her] heart". Even so, she admits to pressures being put on her to "think as commercially as possible".

The simple fact is that, for earnest young traditional classical artists such as Benedetti, finding a serious, straightforward record deal these days is nigh impossible. The labels have put all but a few of their shrinking dollars into that confection they call crossover - most of it with limited shelf life. Remember Russell Watson, dubbed a "classical" tenor, but fast becoming a voice of the past? Don’t tell me EMI have his long-term interests at heart.

Some, such as the 17-year-old New Zealand phenomenon Hayley Westenra, have an undoubted natural talent. She’s in Scotland for the first time later this month as part of a major UK tour. No doubt there will be throngs of followers - she actually refers to them as fans - willing to pay good money to hear her sing Wuthering Heights exactly like Kate Bush, or some Maori ballad.

These, and other smoochy numbers, are what make up her entire debut album Pure, which topped the so-called "classical" charts for weeks when it was released last summer. Decca has poured £3 million into establishing Westenra as a "classical" artist. She is nothing of the kind: by her own admission she favours "a mix of light classical with adult pop". She was discovered busking her soft-centred music on a New Zealand street.

The problem facing true classical artists, particularly where recording is concerned, is one of branding.

The term "classical" is itself a misnomer, given that it essentially refers to one period in musical history: roughly from Bach to Beethoven. But it has become internationally recognised as the convenient descriptive for art music of any culture at any time. The record labels have not only muddied the waters with their loose terminology, but they have used the power of saturation marketing to feed us lies.

CHARLOTTE CHURCH is hardly what you could call a classical soprano, either. She’s certainly an entertainer, but don’t confuse her appetite for celebrity with the level of sophisticated dedication that drives lifelong classical artists like Benedetti.

Musical judgment is seriously lacking among the star-makers of the big labels, and their puppets at commercial radio station, Classic FM. That’s not their priority. Pushing image is, however, no matter how exploitative it is. Why else would a second-rate tenor like the blind Andrea Bocelli command such colossal air-time and publicity? There’s blandness in his art, but he does have Decca’s marketing megabucks behind him.

The nature of record deal that Benedetti has clinched - it will be announced "very soon", she promises - will determine in our minds the kind of artist she intends to be, and to what extent she remains in charge of her musical destiny.

The past year has shown her to be a young girl who knows her mind; is wholly focussed; and is in no immediate hurry to hit the big time. But as the awards and recognition mount up, the vultures will be circling. It’s just a hunch, but I don’t think she’ll be an easy target.

• Hayley Westenra plays the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on 15 November

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