Queen of a musical dynasty - just don't cross her on Bach

Part of a famous family of performers, Elizabeth Wallfisch is passionate about baroque, and nurturing young artists


By Jessica Elgot, December 21, 2010
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Wallfisch: “living masterclass”

Wallfisch: “living masterclass”

When you are a member of the Wallfisch family, there is a certain inevitability about the way your life will pan out. There is very little chance of escaping a career in music.

Violinist Elizabeth Wallfisch married cellist Raphael Wallfisch and all three of their children are musicians. Her husband's parents are pianist Peter Wallfisch and cellist Anita Lasker Wallfisch who wrote a powerful memoir on playing music in Auschwitz. Elizabeth's young nephew, Abraham Wallfisch Jacobs, is a promising cellist.

Elizabeth married into the Wallfisch clan, but she comes from a musical family herself. "This 'dynasty' is on my side too - it goes back to my great grandparents. My grandfather, Albert Coates, was a world famous conductor - he headed the London Symphony Orchestra."

Australian-born Wallfisch has carved out a career as a leading baroque violinist. Having recorded works by great composers including Vivaldi, Mozart and Bach, she has developed a reputation for exploring the music of lesser-known names such as the Czech composer Josef Myslivecek and the German Karl Friedrich Abel.

It's vital that people are exposed to real music - not just the eardrum bashing kind

Touring as a soloist, as an ensemble musician and as a musical director, she has played across the world from Australia to Zimbabwe - she works regularly with the Israeli Chamber Orchestra.

One of her most recent concerts, at the Wimbledon Music Festival in London in November, had a dramatic finale when a chimney in the 17th-century Southside House caught fire and the venue was evacuated. "I would love to finish that concert one day," she laughs.

She attributes her success to growing up in a musical household. "I was very fortunate that my family knew how to nurture talent. It was in the genes. Both my parents were academic and great music lovers - my father played clarinet and my mother was a pianist."

Even her step-mother was a musician - she played the cello.

Wallfisch's own children have all followed a musical direction, Benjamin is a film composer, Simon an opera singer and cellist and Jo is studying jazz.

"I never knew they would be musicians," she says. "But my sons knew themselves. Ben was an infant prodigy, in composition and piano. He could play and write piano from being younger than three. I would call him for dinner and he'd say: 'Let me just finish this piece'. You'd hear him bash the piano and then you'd hear a perfect cadence. But none of them really practised much."

A household of two world-famous musicians might seem like cause for potential conflict between Wallfisch and her husband - and they do have their moments.

"He calls me the Bach police - I hear a phrase and I have to go and knock on the door to tell him what I think. He's so sweet, he doesn't shout at me. And I'm not always right. I tell him to go away when I'm practising.

"But we are a fabulous team, we've been together nearly 40 years and, of course,we talk about music. We only talk about music and our
children."

Nurturing talent is one of Wallfisch's great passions, having recently having formed the Wallfisch Band, in which gifted young artists are given opportunities to play with classical musicians at the height of their game - something she calls "a living masterclass".

They will tour Europe next year. She is also planning performances in Australia and a festival as a "home" for the band.

Arts funding cuts which might deprive a new generation of children access to classical music and tuition is something she is deeply concerned about.

She says: "It's vital people are exposed to real music, not the kind where you put on headphones and just blast your eardrums away. These cuts deprive people of such meaningful expression. And music is a morale booster. It's such a basic need. It used to be universal that people had a piano in their homes, the poorest of families sang together on a Saturday night. Now that culture is gone, a piano is a sign of privilege." Exposure to traditional music, from Irish jigs to Israeli dancing, should be part of the growing up process, she insists. Children can be exposed to "anything that gets them going."

She adds: "People are only intimidated by classical music if they are never exposed to it."

What drove Wallfisch early in her career, apart from her genes, was a deep love for the music and the instrument, and a fierce determination to improve as a musician.

"Skills go away if you don't practise. I do let it slip, but if I stop playing for more than week, I need a while to get back up to scratch. You are an athlete, your muscles need to keep in shape."

Wallfisch turned to the baroque period when she was 27, after repetitive strain injury caused by over-vigorous rehearsing left her unable to play for a year. "I overdid it as young people do. It was terrifying and I suffered from depression. It was real grief and loss, a very serious thing," she says. As she relearned how to play, she found the baroque style and instrument suited her new calmer, more reflective style.

"It was one of my dear friends [Jewish musical director] Derek Solomons, who handed me a baroque bow and gave me three weeks to play a concert. I thought: 'Yes! Aha!' I haven't looked back - I feel just the same now as I did at that moment, I could never get sick of it, I have new eyes and ears every day."

    Last updated: 3:00pm, December 21 2010