Nicola Benedetti reveals vision for ‘Scottish stories’ to take centre stage in the Edinburgh International Festival
Setting out her vision for the event for the first time, the violinist said she intended to draw on exciting, romantic and mythological stories about Scotland and its people in her programming.
Benedetti, the first Scot to be appointed festival director, revealed she wanted the event to “celebrate the profound stories that lie within our nation’s identity” and have a place at the heart of debate in modern-day Scotland.
The 35-year-old has vowed to try to attract the maximum number of people and the broadest possible audience, ensure the festival is as “welcoming, relatable and understanding for people as possible,” and helps bring people to the event who “just don’t know where to start.”
Ayrshire-born Benedetti insisted she would embrace the “highest quality art, in all its forms” and pledged that the core elements of the EIF’s traditional line-ups, including classical musical, theatre and opera, would not be “eroded.”
But she insisted her festivals would build on the efforts of previous director Fergus Linehan to grow and diversify the festival audience, particularly in his music programming, and suggested Leith Theatre would play a key role in future.
Benedetti was a surprise appointment when she was unveiled in March, partly because of her extensive international touring commitments and a lack of experience as a festival programmer.She admitted she had not given it any thought until she was approached by headhunters.
Benedetti said: “I actually thought they were calling to ask me who would be a good person for the job.
"I didn’t think for a second they were calling to actually ask about me. Even after the call, I was like: ‘Surely not.’
"But I really started to think about it and thought to myself: ‘Hang on a minute.’
"My life permanently feels too full and has always done. The thought of adding a major, monumental new commitment just wasn’t on my mind.
“But I knew that a written proposal had to be in by a certain date. I started thinking that if I was try to put something together, with the 20 years of touring since I was 15, going into concert halls, and meeting all the people that make culture happen...I just had a million and one thoughts.
"Getting on stage with a violin is my dominant life and career, and a lifelong commitment and dedication, but I realised there is so much of my desire for betterment, change or communication that you just can’t fulfil as a single entity.”
Benedetti, who shot to fame when she won the BBC Young Musician of the Year title at the Usher Hall, the one of the festival’s main venues, said she had already done “countless hours” of work on her vision for the 75-year-old event.
She said: "The application process took at least six months. I had lived with the possibility of doing this for a long time. The initial feeling I had was: ‘Right, this is actually going to happen.’
"Since March, I’ve had every possible sensation and emotion – excitement, trepidation – as you would expect doing something like this for the first time.
“This festival is a huge cultural institution. It has 250 performances over three-weeks. It’s absolutely insane.
“There’s been a real process of extremely intense collaboration with the festival’s management team and board, but also with people doing a similar type of job around the world and in cultural institutions that I’ve got to know. I’ve been calling everybody, from directors and writers to people in science, business and politics.
"I've felt overwhelmed with gratitude for the support, guidance and advice I've had.
“There’s been a sense of congratulations for the festival making, I guess, what seems like quite a bold and an unusual choice to have a performing artist. I’m not about to give up the violin.“There’s been a real collective sense that people want to see that work. People like to see models change and a different vibe coming in.”
Benedetti, the first female and second youngest EIF director, said the festival would “embody internationalism” but would also be a deeply proud “Scottish organisation.”
She added: “Through all of our combined art forms, I want to tell Scotland’s story – by telling the best of our international and enlightened story to the people of Scotland, but also by telling Scotland’s story to the world.
"Scotland’s national companies are absolutely phenomenal. They’re here throughout the year, so what’s our identity and what can only we do for these three weeks every year?"However it’s about telling the best stories of Scotland, the most exciting, the most romantic and the most mythological stories.”
Benedetti dismissed suggestions from some commentators that the EIF was likely to move away from the pop, rock and indie music acts that had been a hallmark of Linehan’s tenure.She added: "I think the festival experience has been added to and diversified by Fergus. He’s done an incredible job at expanding the festival’s reach, but none of those things at the core of it – the number of orchestras invited, the amount of theatre and opera – have been eroded.
"It’s a really important point of distinction. You see a lot of festivals around the world that started off as one thing and in introducing more pop streams the rest has got eroded and it then ceases to exist.
"Fergus has not done that. The things that he has done at Leith Theatre will not be disappearing. I had a great time there this summer.
“Clearly the audience love it there, it has a really fun, relaxed and exciting vibe, and is actually a pretty flexible venue. But it’s not replacing the sacredness and beauty of very quiet concert halls.
“I will definitely be looking at presenting single items of music that will be reorganised and de-categorised by genre and reorganised by meaning and the type of experience you will have."
Benedetti suggested her programmes would embrace elements of “discovery, mystery, curiosity and thought-provoking.”
She added: “I want to give the deepest possible experience, through the highest quality art, in all its forms, to the maximum number of people and the broadest possible audience.
"That’s a place of natural tension, which is my happy place. It’s about acting with absolute integrity and discipline in the forms of art that you stand by, and the identity of what you represent and present.
"But it’s also about doing everything in your power to be as welcoming, relatable and understanding as possible.
"My belief is that people are curious and want a diversity of experience. People also want to learn things, but so often just don’t know where to start. They feel shut out of stuff and are worried about asking a dumb question, never mind being worried about doing the right or wrong thing once they’re in a concert hall.
"Given my type of upbringing, it’s not a stretch for me to understand how those people feel.
"I personally don’t like being told off in a venue. I don’t like it when I see people telling other people off in a venue."Taking care of every part of the audience experience, so that people know as much as they possibly can, is something I’ll be attacking full-on.”