By Michael Roddy
STAFFORD England (Reuters) - Violinist Nicola Benedetti has a best-selling album in the British pop charts so it comes as no surprise that she approves of a bit of populism to get the message across that classical music can be fun.
She does, though, draw the line at marketing herself as the "classical babe" that the British tabloids thought was a good niche for her, when she first exploded onto the British music scene as BBC Young Musician of the Year a decade ago.
It is not that the Scottish-born violinist of Italian heritage opposes product endorsements, and she knows that with her career progressing by leaps and bounds she could have plenty of them, but she thinks they can get in the way of the music.
"It's difficult and I don't really know how I feel about that," she said, talking about endorsements after performing Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" with the Manchester Camerata chamber orchestra in this English Midlands city on Friday.
"But you always have to ask yourself, 'Is your main goal to be as good a musician as possible, and for as many people as possible?' Then you'll enter into the means that get you to more people, and that seems to be a fairly natural progression."
She certainly enchanted a packed audience at The Gatehouse Theatre in Stafford, and won rave reviews when she and the Manchester Camerata, under Hungarian conductor Gabor Takacs-Nagy, repeated the same program on Saturday in Manchester.
"Obviously she's a brilliant violinist," Takacs-Nagy, also a noted violinist, said after conducting with Benedetti as soloist. "She is a very spontaneous player who is improvising - it is quite close to how I imagine music making."
ALL THE WAY TO THE BANK
With her "Homecoming - A Scottish Fantasy" the first classical album to make the top 20 in Britain's pop charts for almost two decades, Benedetti might be thought to be cruising all the way to the bank.
Winning the BBC competition a decade ago playing Szymanowski's First Violin Concerto led to what was widely reported to be an eye-popping million-pound ($1.6-million) recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon - at the age of 16.
"I never did," Benedetti said of the contract she purportedly signed, noting that the fiction has been perpetuated because "the appropriate people are quite happy to allow it".
Nor was everything else back then quite as rosy as it looked from the outside. Playing 100 concerts a year, she felt like she was losing control of her career until she had an encounter with childhood friend and fellow violinist Alina Ibragimova, who "could sort of see that I was getting further away from myself".
Then, "I just tried to cut down on how much I was doing, I started with a new teacher, various things like that," she said.
Back on track, and pleased with her progress, Benedetti said she now wants to connect with as wide an audience as possible.
The 26-year-old still performs the demanding Szymanowski concerto, to ecstatic reviews recently in New York, but also played alongside pop stars Rod Stewart and Susan Boyle at the opening night of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in July.
On Sunday, she will perform what she said is mostly pop for the iTunes Festival at the Roundhouse music venue in London.
Nor does she think classical musicians should be held above the fray when it comes to media discussion of foibles and looks.
"One thing I do not adhere to is that classical musicians should somehow be above that kind of whatever you call it - discrimination, judgment ... I just think we're people like the rest of them and the rest of the world is subjected to those things all the time and why not us?"
Also, if a bit of glamor and populism can sell records and make more young people interested in music, it is well worth it.
"I'm ... very concerned with social structures and often political affairs and education systems, I am hugely consumed by concern over those things," she said.
"Music not being used for anything is entirely worthy by itself, you don't need music to get people together. But the fact is that it can be used for that and if you have a sort of a dual appreciation of music for the sake of music and what powers music can hold ... it's just a natural path for me."
(Editing by Louise Ireland)