Simon Docking never intended to come to Halifax. A decade ago, he probably couldn’t have told you much about the city.
Food for the soulBy Suzanne Rent | Sep 14, 2012
Cellist Shimon Walt has shaped a generation of music in Halifax
What a difference a choice makes. During his teenage years, Shimon Walt chose to focus on cello after purchasing a recording of Brahms C minor sonata; his mother had originally requested he buy Richard Chamberlain’s Doctor Kildare LP.
Thanks to the choice he made then, Walt has been shaping Halifax’s music scene since he first arrived in the city in 1976. Educated in Tel Aviv and Boston, Walt now teaches and shares his love of music with students at Dalhousie University. He’s one of the founding members of Symphony Nova Scotia, once serving as its first personnel manager and now and as its assistant principal cellist. He’s also the cellist with Rhapsody Quintet and operates the entertainment agency Walt Music.
And this year, Walt is the new musician-in-residence for the Saint Cecilia Concert Series, for which he will create and perform with four concerts. For Larry Bent, Saint Cecilia’s board chairman, choosing Walt as the musician-in-residence is a no-brainer. “Shimon is at the centre of the music scene in Nova Scotia,” says Bent. “But he’s never had the opportunity to shine his own solo light. We thought he deserved an opportunity to do that.”
During his four concerts, Walt will be speaking with audiences and sharing his own connections with the pieces he’s chosen. He will also be playing with musicians from around the city, including many of his own students. At Saint Cecilia, Bent says audiences can expect a series not only with “very high calibre music,” but one in which Walt creates an emotional experience.
“We’re going to get a very personal dimension,” Bent says. “I think that’s something as a concertgoer I will find very fulfilling. Everything about him enlarges your experience of music.”
Recently, Walt spoke with Halifax Magazine.
What does it mean to you to be part of Saint Cecilia?
This is my 37th year in the city. I came here as a 25, 30-year-old young man in 1976 and here I am still here. I came here with the idea of coming here maybe one year or two years and it became my life, my community. I never knew that I would love it so much. This is my place, my work, my city, so being asked to be a musician in residence for a chamber music series in your own backyard, I think that’s actually more of a reward than being nominated for a position elsewhere. And the other thing is it gives me the opportunity to plan the whole four concerts from the bottom up, completely my own ideas. And the people. Colleagues of mine, professionals, students of mine who I will involve in all the concerts. Music for me is like a family. It’s not loneliness. For me music making is friendship, it’s partnership, it’s having your colleagues around you. That’s why I am so excited because I get to play with the most amazing, amazing players.
What do you have planned for the concerts? Every single piece in the repertoire has a direct connection to my life, my career, to my development to anything and everything I do. The first concert [on September 23] will be a concert of piano trios. Now for me, concert trios are very close to my heart. I know some purist string players will wonder why I didn’t say “string quartet” because that’s the king of chamber music. And I love string quartets and I play them. But there is something about a piano trio that I don’t get from a string quartet.
What is it that makes a piano trio special?
The three individual instruments play individual big parts, but together they merge into one cohesive ensemble. So Robert Uchida, who is our amazing concertmaster, is joining me and Lynn Stodola, she is the [former] chair of the music department at Dal and a seasoned musician. I am still thinking about a third piece of music just to open the program, something smaller. I think a Haydn trio would be something I’d really like, with a Hungarian last movement. But the main two cornerstones of this piece will be the Mendelssohn first trio in D minor and the Brahms trio. Mendelssohn was, I believe, my very first piece of chamber music I played in my life with my brother, a pianist, and a wonderful violinist in Israel. And that piece goes with me wherever I go, because being the first one you spend so much time learning the notes. So whenever I can take this piece with me. It’s lively, it’s beautiful, it has great melodies.
What will be the best concerts for someone who is just learning the genre?
New people, definitely go to the Rhapsody Quintet concert [May 12, 2013]. They will love it. They will hum the tunes. For people who love the music will probably go to everything. But the third concert [January 27, 2013], that’s the one that is based on my very close relationship to voice. If I could have been a singer I could have. I sing to my students and I make them sing. If you cannot sing a phrase, you cannot play it… One of the songs I’ll be playing is “The Swan” from the Carnival of the Animals, which is probably the most choreographed piece of music for dancers. One of the pieces I will also play will be a beautiful tango. But for someone who is new and who would like to experience classical music, this will be a great concert because almost everything on the program is short. That’s what I tried to do; short pieces connected with a voice. Familiar ones: The Swan, a tango, something everyone can relate to.
What do you think you learn about music when you play with musicians from other genres, and what do you think they learn from you?
I don’t think I will ever learn to be a jazz player. I love jazz. I can’t improvise. Somebody asked me once, “Can you improvise?” and I said, “Yes, only if I get lost.” That time with [jazz saxophonist] Mike Cowie he asked me if I would sit in for fun, and I always wanted to do, but I was too scared. I can play something but I need some charts. I am a very good sight reader, so send it to me so I can learn it. He sent me a few charts so I can learn and play them at home. So I came over and it was supposed to be very quiet. No one was supposed to know I was there. So here I open my cello, put my microphone on and he goes to his microphone and says, “Ladies and gentlemen we have a special guest here with us,” and I thought he shouldn’t do that because I have no idea what I am doing here. And everyone stopped talking. There was complete silence. We played one piece, and he cued me and I played my part and we played again the second verse, slightly different. And then they played and then he leaned into me and said, “Play this,” and I repeated it. Before I knew it, we went through out all kinds of improvisations without even knowing it. It was on-the-spot learning. Would I do it again? I would but I am scared, completely petrified.
What do you think the city and the province has gained from having Symphony Nova Scotia?
Every city, as far as I am concerned, that is worth its salt has an orchestra. And a theatre. And an art gallery. This is the soul of the city. Yes, not every person goes to see the symphony, but not every person goes to a wrestling match and some people would say arenas and sports are very important to us. And it is. I am not saying one thing is more important than the other. There is something about art form, about music, about songs, about tunes that’s part of the human soul. You know it or you don’t know it.
It speaks to humanity, don’t you think?
Exactly right. So that’s why I don’t think an orchestra is a luxury. It’s food for your soul. Maybe not for your stomach. Sometimes we overeat food wise, but we under eat creatively. I wish the city would put more finances for the orchestra. I think it’s the most underfunded orchestra in the country. I think most of the benefits of the Symphony are right here in the city. Not even the province. Yes, we go and tour. Most people who go pay for two tickets make it a night, they go to a restaurant, they pay parking, they pay parking tickets. So many spinoffs. We have quite a few concertgoers who come from out of town. They don’t just go to the concert and go back. They will make it a day in the city. They will go to the hotel. They will go to the art gallery. They will go to a restaurant. They will make it a special evening. Orchestra does a lot of things for many people. It’s essential.
The season starts with Music of My Life on September 23. www.stcecilia.ca