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Wilma Smith, friends & family

by Suzanne Yanko

As Wilma Smith, Concertmaster of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, prepares for a radical career change, the next Wilma & Friends performance – with Teddy Tahu Rhodes, described as “one of Australia’s most charismatic baritones” – looks to be a sell-out. This may be because of the added interest of Rhodes sharing the platform with violinist Smith and pianist Kristian Chong.

But there’s more to it than that. Wilma has no shortage of friends for this series of concerts, many drawn from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra where she is concertmaster. But not for much longer. This month Wilma Smith, Concertmaster of the MSO since 2003, has announced she will step down from the post at the end of the 2014 season.

More recently there have been new musical friends thanks to an attachment to Orchestra Victoria as a consultant. And there’s a host of “friends” who may never meet her but feel they know the violinist personally, just from observing her and hearing her play. (Even her recorded message, to turn off mobile phones before the concert, is delivered in the manner of a kindly aunt).

Counting myself in the audience and reviewer group, I decided it was time to meet Wilma (It seems natural to refer to this musician by her given name, not “Smith”) and test this feeling of familiarity that seems to surround her. The Grand Prix intervened (Orchestra Victoria was too close to the track for my tape-recorder to compete with the practice sessions), as did Wilma’s family trip to New Zealand, but finally we found a time and place: the concertmaster’s private room at Hamer Hall, forty-five minutes before a concert. Not ideal, but at least we were both where we needed to be.

Wilma arrived exactly on time (as expected) and, having politely (and unnecessarily) asked for permission, set to sewing a button on to the black top of the concert outfit she was wearing as we started our discussion. We started with where is home: Fiji or Auckland? Four-year-old Wilma travelled by ship from Suva to Auckland and remembers the experience as being great fun and agrees she was happily inclined towards her family’s new home because of it.

“But you know, every country I’ve been in starts to feel like home”, she said. Her twenties were spent in Boston, “formative years … the beginning of your professional life, a lot of big influences, so Boston feels like home,” she muses.

“And then of course, Melbourne! I’ve been here 12 years now … Then when we go back to Fiji, that feels like home”, she laughs. “It’s the people, I identify with the people – it’s easy-going, I love the vibe of the place.”

When did music become important? “Always, in that I sang, and I was surrounded by it in Fiji”. Even in resorts there now, Wilma says, “everyone sings, the waiters, just everybody in Fiji sings, it’s a natural part of life”. Her own parents grew up on a small island and didn’t have formal music training but “I’m sure they were both musical” Wilma recalls, “A bit of piano, self-taught, Dad played guitar … so I think there’s something to, it’s in the blood.”

So, from child in Fiji to concertmaster of the MSO – isn’t that something of a romantic story? “I was very privileged”, counters Wilma. “I was very lucky to have the opportunities I had in Auckland as a kid”. She credits her primary school with setting her on the road to her career, although, thanks to her mother’s interest she had started piano at the age of seven. But “a very far-sighted primary teacher” saw to it that every child played an instrument. Her parents helped with the purchase of a ten-pound Chinese violin, and their support, and Wilma found herself in a class of ten, playing the violin. She also recalls not getting the end-of-year prize for “most promising”!

But Wilma enjoyed playing and very soon, started having private lessons from an “amazing” teacher, Violet Lewis. “She was self-taught, and a fanatical tennis fan. So everything about the violin was likened to tennis; she’d say, follow through (and I find myself saying it to my students) … that movement of the arms. I was very lucky to have her as my first real teacher because very little has had to change”.

But it was not until Wilma was leaving school that music presented itself as a possible career, with medicine and engineering in her sights as well. “But for some reason, I don’t know why, I lost interest … and I fell into music as those other things went away due to my slackness,” she laughed. At the Auckland Conservatorium Wilma started a major in piano, then switched to the violin, “and the more I did it, the more I grew to love it. And that’s still the case” she says.

She describes her current workload as “ridiculous”: the MSO is the main job, then there’s Wilma & Friends, and now a contract with Orchestra Victoria as artistic advisor. What does that entail? “Anything that needs doing in an artistic fashion, whether it’s to do with players, or concerts or programs or …”

“I had to find two and a half days a week, which didn’t exist,” Wilma laughs, agreeing that this is why she’s having to sew her costume half an hour before the concert.

She retires this November but will she still play with the MSO? “That’s up to them. I’ll play with anybody, within reason … I love playing with orchestras and I hope I get to do a lot of it still! Long may it live!”

There’s an event next June in New Zealand, she says, a 50th anniversary of a chamber music competition. While there she may lead a string ensemble doing a 15-concert tour (“Odd things like that will probably crop up”, says Wilma, adding she’s “kind of looking forward to the adventure (of retirement)”.

“I don’t know what will crop up, oh yeah, and I’m doing a psychology degree, something I’m interested in, and it can go beyond playing the violin”, she says. “Because I do imagine one day it will come to an end, and provided my brain’s still working I’d like to use it”.

Finally, a few words about Wilma Smith’s violin, a 1761 Guadagnini. It belonged to “a lovely old man who used to be associate concertmaster at the NZSO. He sold it to me incredibly cheaply” (when she was in Boston in 1985). “He wanted me to have it”. Even this is put down to “good fortune” by a violinist who saves the accolades for others, and doesn’t easily accept any for herself.

As for that feeling of familiarity … the next day I was at my long-time hairdresser’s in the city. In the usual chat I mentioned I’d interviewed the Concertmaster of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. “Wilma?” Stanley queried, as his staff brightened. “She’s my cousin”.

Of course. Family. That’s the feeling that surrounds Wilma Smith.

Chamber Music with Teddy is at 6pm, June 16 & 18, at the
Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre
For information this and future Wilma & Friends concerts go to http://wilmaandfriends.com.au/concerts-2014/

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