Interview: Sophie Solomon
The hugely talented violinist has taken over as head of the JMI and is dedicated to reaching a wider audience
Sophie Solomon never wanted to be a violinist.
She may have started playing at the age of two, been selected for the National Youth Orchestra, been a classical music scholar at her public school, and even been heralded as one of the most talented violinists of her generation, but all Solomon wanted to do was learn Russian.
So instead of becoming a concert violinist, she read modern history and Russian at Oxford, little knowing that her passion for eastern European culture and her musical talents would both be vital to her in her future career.
During a year in Moscow as part of her degree, Solomon belatedly fell in love with her instrument. She recalls: "I was in Russia listening to this violin music played by street musicians in darkened underpasses. It was like a revelation. I suddenly thought: "Oh my God, I play the violin". It was like I had found my thing. I started to play Jewish music with its echoes of cantorial works and intonations of Yiddish. It was a spiritual experience. I'd been playing the violin since I was a young child and it had always been enjoyable, but it didn't really click until I started playing that kind of music."
When she returned to Oxford, Solomon founded a klezmer band with trumpeter Jonathan Walton, called Oi Va Voi. It took off in a big way. They signed a record deal, enjoyed huge success around Europe and played a part in launching the solo career of its vocalist - one K T Tunstall. After six years with the band, Solomon decided to branch out on her own, She signed a deal with Decca and became a successful solo act.
However, after several exhausting years on the road, Solomon is once again popping the violin back in its case - this time to take over the directorship of the Jewish Music Institute from its founder, the redoubtable Geraldine Auerbach, who is standing down after 25 years at the helm of the organisation which is dedicated to the preservation and development of Jewish music.
Solomon reveals that she has had her eye on the post for some time. "Very soon after Oi Va Voi was formed in 1998 I became aware of the klezmer workshops that Geraldine was running, and very quickly became quite inspired by all the amazing work that was going on. I remember thinking all the way back then that her job was quite cool," she laughs.
Born: June 6, 1978
Early life: Began violin lessons aged two. Accepted into the National Youth Orchestra and won a music scholarship to Cheltenham Ladies College. Read history and Russian at Oxford, where she founded the klezmer band Oi Va Voi
Career: Worked as a DJ in Russian clubs before returning to the violin with Oi Va Voi. Went solo in 2006. Now fronts the Sophie Solomon Band. Director of the Jewish Music Institute in January 2012
Now Solomon has what she sees as an enviable opportunity to bring all the strands of her education together - the music, the first-class degree and her passion for Jewish culture. She is relishing taking up the job this month. "I'm passionate about bringing Jewish music to a wider audience. That's something I've done with Oi Va Voi, with my own solo music and through composing. I guess this is a way of doing that on a larger scale. The other thing I'm really into is education. I remember doing a workshop down at Deal, in Kent, at a school where none of the children was Jewish, and teaching them about Jewish wedding traditions and how to write hip-hop Jewish raps. It's all about trying to inspire kids and teaching them a new way to understand different cultures."
The world of Jewish music is a wide one, and there is considerable crossover between eastern European, gypsy and Jewish melodies, not to mention Sephardic rhythms. Then there are religious Jews like Matisyahu performing reggae and hip-hop. So has Solomon given much thought to what actually qualifies as Jewish music?
She smiles as she remembers a quote from Frank London of the American band, The Klezmatics: "He said: 'If a klezmer band plays La Bamba then that's Jewish music'. Of course, it's very fluid. For me, there are several strands. There's important work to be done in preserving tradition, for example in the work of suppressed musicians, but I'm also excited about exploring the Sephardi side."
Solomon, who is 33, wants to reach out to younger audiences and also has her eye on the JMI's website, which she feels is due for an overhaul.
"It's very important for the JMI to take on a digital presence. I want to bring a lot of our resources online and I also think that this is a way of getting people to interact with us. People come to the JMI all the time looking to book bands for simchahs, but at the moment we don't have sound samples. I also want to get some video content of the concerts we do. Then there's the education strands that we can take to schools around the country. My feet aren't fully under the desk yet, so it's early days - I need to learn a lot more. But there's so much to do. The big question is not where we start but where we stop."
Solomon's passion for music and her eloquence in conveying that feeling is obvious. It all started, according to her mother at least, before she was born. "My mum says she is completely responsible for my musical development because she listened only to violin concertos when she was pregnant," she laughs.
Solomon's father was a keen amateur violinist and he encouraged his daughter to play when she was still a toddler. As she grew up in Cheshire and attended boarding school in Cheltenham - she won a music scholarship to the town's famous Ladies College - she gradually discovered her father's family's Lithuanian and Polish roots. This in turn inspired her to study Russian from the age of 12, an interest that has endured (indeed halfway through our interview she breaks off to speak in Russian to her cleaner who is in a panic about a blown fuse).
Now her focus in the JMI, and if she is anything like as successful as she has been as a musician and composer, the organisation will be in good hands. Her solo career has featured appearances with musicians of the stature of Paul Weller and Rufus Wainwright, and she also played some of her own compositions with the London Symphony Orchestra.
She still has an album waiting to be finished, but the playing will need to take a back seat for the moment.
She says: "My days of living on a tour bus are over, but it's not inconceivable that I might perform. I like the idea of being a kind of player-manager at the JMI. I'll do the curating, administrating and producing and perhaps, every now and then, I'll whip my violin out."