Review: Nicola Benedetti & The Oxford Philharmonic

Violinist Nicola Benedetti achieves what so many classical musicians do not: she appeals to those who may otherwise never set foot in a concert hall. First catapulted into the limelight as 2004’s BBC Young Musician of the Year, the violinist has become a regular performer at the Proms. In 2014, her album Homecoming: A Scottish Fantasy reached the top 20 of the UK charts, making her the first British solo violinist to do so in close to two decades. On Saturday 28th November, joined by the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, she dazzled once more at the Sheldonian Theatre.

Benedetti opened with a remarkable rendition of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major. She had no difficulty negotiating the piece’s considerable demands; what impressed most, though, was how fluently and unhurriedly her solos flowed. Her arabesques were stunning, the colour of the sound exquisite. The orchestra, conducted by Marios Papadopoulos, played a vital role in building a sense of tension and release. A notable instance was the anticipatory tutti passage that grew to a climax just before Benedetti’s first entry, resolved by the soloist in a soaring higher register.

Benedetti’s command of the performance space was evident, even when not a note was sounded. Before commencing the concerto, she looked up at the Sheldonian’s painted ceiling and all eyes followed hers, hanging on each movement. Yet, despite her star status, Benedetti did not demand all of the audience’s attention. Gidon Kremer has said that this concerto should not be approached as a competition between the soloist, orchestra, and conductor, but rather as a conversation involving all three parties.

This approach was certainly followed, with the musicians onstage even giving each other visible encouragement. Some members of the orchestra, for example, nodded enthusiastically along with Benedetti. This sense of mutual support was, in part, due to the concert’s laidback atmosphere. The occasion felt relaxed and informal, even festive, with the orchestra chatting and smiling between pieces as much as Benedetti herself.

The orchestra’s performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations was similarly effortless in its virtuosity. Each variation was written with a different one of the composer’s friends in mind, requiring alternations between distinct moods without compromising the overall cohesiveness of the piece. Papadopoulos and the orchestra succeeded in capturing both its humour and its seriousness, balancing the two with intensity and eloquence.

Nicola Benedetti is also known for her dedication and commitment to providing children with a musical education, such as her ongoing work with the Big Noise Project in Scotland. It was testament to her efforts that there were a number of young children present in the Sheldonian, who remained enraptured throughout the concert. This is the mark of Benedetti’s talent: her ability to spellbind listeners of all ages and musical leanings with her passion for the music she plays. 

Tilly Nevin

For Nicola Benedetti’s upcoming concert dates, please visit her website. More information about the Oxford Philharmonic can be found here.

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