Liebeck's got talent

He's one of Britain's finest young violists, the man who puts TV talent show winners in their place


By Tim Stein, April 21, 2011
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There is a link between the nature of Jewish culture and the high number of Jewish musicians, says Jack Liebeck

There is a link between the nature of Jewish culture and the high number of Jewish musicians, says Jack Liebeck

In Jack Liebeck's living room, two violin cases lie on the floor, stacks of classical CDs line the shelves and the score of Mendelssohn's violin concerto rests on the coffee table. It is not hard to guess what he does for a living.

Indeed, at only 30, Liebeck is already establishing himself as one of the finest violinists of his generation, with rave reviews, a recording contract with Sony and performances with major orchestras and conductors the world over. Last year he won the classical Brit Award, beating Britain's Got Talent's twice-nominated Faryl Smith. Two months ago he was appointed professor of violin at his alma mater, London's distinguished Royal Academy of Music.

Liebeck (the name is of German origin) was always destined a music career, it seems. A "rudderless child", according to his mother, he did not excel at anything until, aged eight, a violin touched his hand.

"I knew deep down that there was something I was good at," he laughs, "but I wasn't quite sure what it was up till then." But by only the second lesson with his teacher, the Serbian violinist, Mateja Marinkovic, Liebeck's South-African-born parents were told: "You have a violinist in the family".

Liebeck describes how, at his first lesson, he was placed on a table - "because I was so short," he says - shown how to hold the violin, and "that was about it."

By the age of 10, and already playing works like the Paganini Caprices and concertos, he was accepted first at the Purcell School of Music and then, in 1989, at the Royal Academy. No doubt this had something to do with his teacher?

I knew deep down there was something that I was good at

Jack Liebeck

"He was just a wonderful friend right from the beginning. I studied with Mateja for 15 years, so we've grown up together and I suppose I just responded to his camaraderie and guidance."

While the only professional musician (his father is a solicitor, his mum a retired nurse) in the family, Liebeck comes from a long line of "Jewish music lovers and serious amateur musicians", many of whom played an instrument almost every day of their lives.

So what is his first musical memory? "Well, my dad's a piano aficionado, and I remember early on hearing the name 'Brendel' [as in Alfred] a lot. I also sang in choirs, which I seemed to enjoy."

He readily admits to an enthusiasm for showmanship, and puts it down to his first public appearance, at the age of 10, when he played the role of Mozart on the BBC. "They were looking for someone who could act as both Mozart and play the violin at the same time. As they couldn't find an actor who could play well enough, I got picked for the part. That probably explains why I love being on the stage," he laughs.

Liebeck lives with his violinist wife, Victoria Sayles (the assistant leader of the Liverpool Philharmonic), in a house in north London which the pair have extensively refurbished. Liebeck, who gives an exhausting 85-90 concerts a year and clearly relishes performing, also feels the pull of home.

"I don't really like the travelling," he says. "I love coming back, relaxing, making coffee [something he counts as an 'obsession'], eating nice food and deciding what colour to paint on my walls and which light to hang from my ceiling."

Does he feel the constant pressure of a virtuoso career? "When I started out as an emerging talent, definitely, yes. Now, even though I'm still young, with recordings and concerts under my belt, I don't consider myself an upstart any more, and don't feel that great sense of pressure. I hope I'm getting to the stage where people are seeing me as a more established artist. I don't look sideways or backwards, and I don't really care what other people are doing. I just want to play as well as I can."

It is the same approach he will recommend to his own students at the RA when he begins teaching in September, and to those just wanting to know if they will "make it" as soloists in the profession.

"I often tell them to make themselves the best musicians possible, to play as many concerts as they can and to make use of the opportunities presented to them at their colleges. Of course luck happens, being in the right place at the right time, but you also have to be stubborn in the sense that you have to be patient enough to wait for your turn."

There have been many great Jewish violinists and, currently, a steady stream of emerging Jewish talent. Does Liebeck think there is a link between the two?

"I think there is certainly something in the Jewish soul, without a doubt, though I don't think it's linked to religion in any way. I'm a violinist, and I don't come from a religious background at all, so I believe it has something to do with the expressive nature of Jewish culture.

"For whatever reason though, the violin, irrespective of religion, has become a very popular instrument to study. I suppose you could ask the same question about Italians and opera. How many Jewish opera singers are there, for instance?"

Jack Liebeck performs at the Oxford May Music Festival from April 27. Details of his 2011 concerts at www.jackliebeck.com

    Last updated: 11:47am, April 21 2011