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MUSIC REVIEW

Not just another pretty prodigy

Acclaimed for her beauty, violinist Nicola Benedetti has the talent and depth to be taken seriously.

January 15, 2008|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

No doubt with some justification, Nicola Benedetti, a violinist of 20 from Scotland who performed a recital at Pepperdine University on Sunday afternoon, has complained in the British press about reviewers who focus more on her beauty than on her music-making. She can hardly be surprised, though.

A remarkable prodigy, Benedetti was named the BBC's Young Musician of the Year at 16. Still, it wasn't talent alone that then enticed Deutsche Grammophon to offer her what has been reported to be the label's best deal in 25 years -- six recordings, a free say in repertory and something in the neighborhood of $2 million. By comparison, Esa-Pekka Salonen's contract with DG is for peanuts.

Happily, success and fame (thus far mostly in Britain, where her photos are favorites of the newspapers and magazines) don't seem to have gone to her head. In Europe, she gets big gigs, but in America she has been honorably working her way up the ranks, gaining experience. Last spring, she was soloist with the Dayton Symphony. This year, she will make her debuts with the Colorado, Virginia and Phoenix symphonies. Her West Coast debut was a recital in La Jolla two years ago.

Her first appearance in these parts, Sunday, was not glamorous, even if it was in Malibu. The hour was 5 p.m. on a flawless day, when the violinist's loveliness competed with nature's and a glorious sunset. Pepperdine's Raitt Hall can be called intimate, but unless worked right by musicians, the 118-seat space feels claustrophobic. Benedetti's accompanist, Alexei Grynyuk, was loud and annoying, and he was probably annoyed by a small, clunky piano.

Despite all this, Benedetti coped graciously. Her program was not trivial. She began with the famous Chaconne from Bach's D-minor Partita for solo violin, followed by Brahms' Third Violin Sonata.

The second half was French, devoted to Ravel and Saint-Saens. She plays a fine instrument, a 1712 Stradivarius. She has a sumptuous tone. She digs into a phrase with plenty of intensity and clearly enjoys showing off her technique, but she never crosses the line to showiness.

An admirable violinist, Benedetti has yet, though, to become a riveting one. Her approach to Bach was old-fashioned, quaintly romantic. She phrases for size -- and for a bigger hall. She enjoys grand moments the most, and her Brahms was rhapsodic and lusty.

But Grynyuk, who is a young Ukrainian, was her competition. Heavy on the pedal and lacking color, he had no hesitation about drowning her out. He, especially, played as though he wished he was in a hall 10 times the size of Raitt. For him, the piano in such a partnership is meant to be the more robustly melodic instrument, and climaxes are contests.

The French music suited Benedetti best and Grynyuk worst. In Ravel's Sonata in G, she was smooth and elegant and comfortable with the jazz elements. Although never exactly flirtatious, she brought elegance to Saint-Saens' "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso" and flair to Ravel's "Tzigane." Grynyuk, however, replaced his earlier competitiveness with something that came across more like bored disdain. She deserved better.

Benedetti is a developing artist. Her technique is not flawless, and she had some moments when her intonation slipped. But she is doing a lot right. James MacMillan and John Tavener have begun writing for her, and her next recording, to be released shortly, will include a new Tavener concerto.

Meanwhile, the world of glamour beckons for this young musician who could probably find far greater fame and fortune in fashion than in classical music. Benedetti deserves credit for tenaciously sticking to her art and playing community events like the recital in Malibu. After a trying afternoon, she's certainly earned the right to be taken seriously. Tonight she will move into a more important and suitable concert hall when she performs the same program with Grynyuk at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

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mark.swed@latimes.com

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Nicola Benedetti

Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine

When: 8 tonight

Price: $30 to $40

Contact: (949) 553-2422 or

www.philharmonicsociety.org

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