Rivka Golani has suddenly gone quiet. The viola virtuoso was describing how her parents fled Eastern Europe to escape antisemitism and find a better life in pre-1948 Palestine.
Golani is now regarded as one of the finest musicians in the world, an accomplished soloist who has had 65 concertos written for her. But asked to comment on how proud her parents must have been of achievements, she falls silent. Over the telephone it is hard to tell whether she is simply lost for words or choked with emotion.
The conversation moves on instead to the unique set of circumstances that allowed her generation of Israeli musicians to become among the greatest in the world. “We were so lucky to have such fantastic people around us,” she says. “Violinist Bronislaw Huberman collected Jewish musicians from all over Europe where they could not get work. That is how the Israel Philharmonic was created. As a result, we had the crème de la crème of musicians.”
Golani, who is 63 and based in the UK, studied at the Rubin Music Academy in Tel Aviv under the celebrated violist and composer Professor Oedeon Partos. She was also inspired by British violists Lionel Tertis and William Primrose. But she came to the instrument late. “In the very last year at university I decided to switch,” she says. “I was a good violinist but I was always attracted to the viola. I never saw it as a limited instrument — it’s much closer to the human voice.”
Golani, who is also a well-regarded abstract painter, recognises that she chose the more challenging option. “The viola for many years was considered a solo instrument. Of course the violin took over and the viola was neglected, maybe because it is a very difficult instrument.”
Londoners will have a chance to experience Golani’s artistry at the Wimbledon Music Festival 2009, where she will play in its performance of Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei on November 20, and on November 25, when she performs a “rare programme” including works by Rachmaninov and Shostakovich.