Wilma Smith is Artistic Director and violinist of Wilma & Friends, a chamber music series based in Melbourne and presenting concerts throughout Australia and New Zealand. She is also Artistic Director of the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition and teaches violin and chamber music at the University of Melbourne, Monash University, Scotch College and Korowa Anglican Girls’ School.
Wilma was born in Fiji and raised in New Zealand. She studied in Boston at the New England Conservatory with the legendary Dorothy DeLay and Louis Krasner then was founding First Violinist of the Lydian String Quartet, winners of the Naumburg Award for Chamber Music and multiple prizes at the Evian, Banff and Portsmouth International String Quartet Competitions. She was Concertmaster of the Harvard Chamber Orchestra and Handel and Haydn Society and performed regularly with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston Pops Orchestra.
Invited to return home to form the New Zealand String Quartet, Wilma was First Violinist until she was appointed Concertmaster of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, a position she held for nine years before moving to Melbourne to be Concertmaster of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra from 2003 to 2014. Wilma also appears as Guest Concertmaster with Sydney, Adelaide, West Australian, and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestras along with Orchestra Victoria and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.
Chatting with Wilma Smith, guest violinist
Over a lunch time, Zoe and Wilma started talking and after a while, Zoe asked if she could record the conversation because Wilma had so many great stories that we didn’t know!
Here is a little snippet of lunch hour with Zoe and Wilma:
Z: So, when was your first string quartet experience?
W: Probably in secondary school at the age of 13 with older people. We met at their house quite regularly rehearsing, and when I was 15 or 16 I did the big secondary school chamber music competition. I still keep in touch with the cellist from that quartet - we went to the same school.
Z: Sounds like an amazing opportunity at a crucial age to be involved with a competition like that.
W: Well, yes! That is what we would like to do for the national chamber music competition here with Musica Viva. In NZ this year we had hundreds of groups involved. Over 400 groups took part in the competition this year. There are regional rounds all over the country and I went over and judged the finals. The winning group was a Maori group playing the first movement of Schubert ‘Death and the Maiden’ from memory.
The real point is not to have a career in chamber music - although the cream obviously rises to the top, there are some phenomenal young musicians out there - but to encourage playing music in general and there is a special bonding that happens when young people play chamber music
Z: I didn’t quite realise how young you were when you started working … the chamber music must have really paid off!
W: Yes, I was really quite young when I got my first job in Auckland at the age of 17; and then when I was 19, I got my first job in the NZSO. After that, I went to Boston to study at the age of 21, but I was lucky as I’d already had a lot of street smarts just having worked full time. It was cool because I didn’t really feel inferior. Going from New Zealand to the big world of America, it would have been easy to feel that way.
I had turned down a scholarship at New England Conservatorium to go to to small college that my teacher had been to. I realised as soon as I got there that I had made a mistake. Straight away, I went over to the New England Con and luckily for me they were short of violins that year, but they had given the scholarship away .
At that stage, I hadn’t even heard of Dorothy DeLay and we had to do live auditions there for a panel of teachers. When we had to put in our preferences, I had no idea who to put so I asked around. Everyone was putting down DeLay and so I put her down and I was lucky enough to get in. We had fortnightly lessons (she was teaching at Juilliard also) and she was incredible.
In my second year, I was put in the scholarship quartet and we gave concerts and had some special opportunities. I didn’t know what to do; I got together with some mates and we auditioned for a new position under Robert Koff (original member of the Juilliard quartet).
He said groups like yours are a dime a dozen but I can see you’ve got some potential, and we worked with him pretty solidly for a few years and we just had to teach four students each and got a stipend. It was such a great opportunity because we rehearsed all the time and got to do concerts.
The Lydian quartet is still there in Brandeis University almost 40 years later, with one of the founding members (Judy Eisenberg) still there.
We did the Evian competition in 1982 and got second; and the very first Banff competition and got third with the Hagen quartet when Clemens Hagen was 16. They didn’t win but they’ve gone on to have the most stellar career - ‘84 was when we won the Naumberg then the Portsmouth where we got third … not a bad record!
Robert Koff was our main coach, but also Louis Krasner; he was mates with Berg and Webern and he commissioned the Berg violin concerto. We also played for Robert Mann and we went to Aspen with the Cleveland quartet … we had lessons with the Guaneri … all of these guys were just floating around.
Z: That must have been quite something with all those males with an all female quartet.
W: We were a group of all girls in a man’s world - and the second all female quartet in America. People made a big deal about it because it was so unusual. I left Boston after seven years with the Lydian quartet to start up the New Zealand String Quartet. It was an amazing opportunity with a connection between Chamber Music New Zealand and NZSO. This one patron had a dream to have a full time string quartet in New Zealand and we played 50/50 - half time in the symphony and half in the quartet and then gradually went to a full time quartet.
I’ve been really lucky to have been involved in the start up of two string quartets that are still going.
Z: What’s kept you coming back to string quartets?
W: It’s really the repertoire, but it’s also the hard work and then the getting the result. There’s so much hard work that goes into a string quartet but the end result is always worth it. I learned all my musical skills in the quartets.
People were a little surprised when I got the concertmaster job with NZSO because I had not really played in orchestras (although I had been playing casually, of course) but I always say that string quartet playing is where you learn everything you need to know and I wish the tertiary institutions would take it more seriously. I still don’t think people really get it …
In a string quartet, your world is so much larger through having to create this collaboration.
Wilma joins Flinders Quartet as guest violinist for concerts during the October and November 2018 period.