A String Player’s Celebration of 2019 – Nicola Benedetti

Nicola Benedetti is a 32-year-old Scottish violinist and rising star who plays with unparalleled virtuosic energy.  Wynton Marsalis is a 58-year-old jazz trumpeter from New Orleans noted as an advocate for preserving and helping others appreciate the profundity in traditional styles of jazz as a way of grounding the richness of American music. The cover of this Grammy award-winning album says it all – the two musicians are smiling and looking at each other with mutual admiration and delight that comes through in how Benedetti interprets Marsalis’ first concerto, a piece written specifically for her.

The Concerto dances between many different genres creating a sense not unlike what happens when I put my entire music collection on “shuffle”.  The opening notes of “Rhapsody,” the first movement are gorgeous, rich, and Debussy-like and show off Benedetti’s lyrical and rich tone as one of the best violinists of her generation. But then, at around a minute and a half in, a raunchy, fiddle-ish low slide throws us into Marsalis’ native New Orleans, signaling that we better get ready for something new – that other movements will have moments of a radical departure from conventional classical violin technique. The violin flutters back and forth between Jascha Heifetz and Stuff Smith, but not in the forced or corny spirit that can sometimes mar experiments in “classical crossover” music.  Rather, Marsalis and Benedetti have successfully allowed their diverse musical influence to sing out and offer something complex and interesting, while allowing the piece as a whole to feel smoothly integrated. (Similar to the musical fusion I heard in Latinx bluegrass of Che Apalache)

A highlight for me is the concerto’s Third Movement “Blues.” Although there seems to be at least pieces a conventional blues structure (a cycle of bars made up of three-chord progressions), this portion is not exactly what you’d hear from B.B. King or even John Coltrane.  The steady groove of a Chicago blues band is replaced with a free-flowing rhythm, where blues-inspired and Romanticism-inspired rifts rise and fall in call-and-response with a lush orchestral sound.  Slowly, it builds in blues-flavored intensity, building to a ferocious burning flurry of notes in a way suggestive of a sermon in the African-American church.  And then, the tension resolves and relaxes into a kind of sigh and sense of peace and meditative (while still gospel-flavored) long notes. It finally ends with a calm silence all the more catching you off guard when the energy picks up again with stomps and handclaps to kick off the “Hootenanny” of the final movement. This is a really stunning work and inspiring listen.

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