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Trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis has worn many musical hats across his remarkable career. So the idea that Ravinia would co-commission a concerto from a guy who studied at Juilliard and performed Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto with his hometown New Orleans Philharmonic when he was a mere 14 years old is not so strange.

What might be a surprise is Marsalis’ choice of instrument: the violin. “I love the violin,” admits Marsalis. “I’ve always been fascinated with American fiddle music, and I would actually practice those tunes on my horn to try to develop a sense of what that language is and how to improvise in that language.

“I’ve written a lot of pieces, and every piece I’ve written squeezes out some of that fiddle tradition. You’ll find things from it in the string quartet [At the Octoroon Balls] that I wrote in the ’90s, [as well as] All Rise [and] The Fiddler and the Dancin’ Witch at the end of the ’90s. The violin concerto [Concerto in D] gave me a chance to investigate that [further].”

“Wynton knows more about certain kinds of fiddle music than I do,” says violinist Nicola Benedetti, for whom Marsalis’ Concerto in D was written and who will be performing its American premiere July 12 at Ravinia with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Cristian Măcelaru. “As far away as our worlds may seem from a distance … there are a lot of similarities with him becoming incredibly famous and well-known very young. I have a similar experience, obviously on a significantly smaller scale, as mine was more focused within the U.K. I have received a lot of invaluable experience and guidance from him.”

Marsalis says of Benedetti, “I’ve known Nicky for a long time and [have] always respected her artistry. She plays with such depth of feeling, the same as that Anglo-Afro-Scottish tradition. It was natural to write a piece for her; she and I have a lot in common — a social consciousness of the need for classical music, a belief in practicing — so there were a lot of common touch points.”

The idea of a Marsalis violin concerto started out on a much smaller scale: a solo violin work. “That had been discussed very casually for probably two years — and kind of went nowhere,” Benedetti says. “Eventually, after a certain live recording of mine that he heard, he said, ‘Why don’t we look at doing a concerto?’ I couldn’t breathe for a whole day, I was so excited and immediately called my manager and said, ‘This is unbelievable!’”

Marsalis was not able to attend the world premiere of the Concerto in D last November in London, but he will appear for the American premiere at Ravinia. “I love Ravinia,” Marsalis says. “I grew up listening to a recording of the Chicago Symphony playing the Brandenburg Concertos that was done at Ravinia.

“It’s one of my favorite venues. And the Chicago Symphony, man, how could you not love them? As a brass player, of course, that’s brass heaven! I’m honored to have Nicky and the Chicago Symphony play my piece at Ravinia, I am blessed. I just hope people enjoy it. That’s the main thing.”

This is an excerpt from an article published in the July edition of the Ravinia magazine. To read the complete version, click here.

TOP: Wynton Marsalis at the 2015 Brno Jazz Festival in the Czech Republic. | Photo: Luigi Beverelli