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On the Cover: Elizabeth Zeltser

Posted April 04, 2018

Violinist Elizabeth Zeltser, fresh off her solo turn in the U.S. Premiere of Andy Akiho’s Ricochet, is our On the Cover musician for April.

Read Elizabeth’s Q & A below to learn about her musical foundations, most memorable performances, and what she considers a perfect day.

You’ll see her on the cover of Playbill all month, and for even more about Elizabeth, follow us on FacebookTwitterInstagramSnapchat, and Tumblr.

What are your earliest memories playing violin? What was it like growing up in your musical family?

I started playing the violin at age three. Both my parents are pianists, my grandmother is an opera singer, and my great-grandfather is a violinist and conductor who was a pupil of Leopold Auer and a classmate of Jascha Heifetz. From the day I was born, I spent every day listening to my father practice the entire piano repertoire at home. So, it was a surprise to my parents when I picked the violin over the piano, but my father found a tiny 1/16 violin for me on his way back from his concert tour in Japan.

My mother enrolled me at School for Strings, where I began my studies in NYC. My mother tells the story that I attended most of my father’s rehearsals as a small child, and she let me explore all the instruments in the orchestra, but I was always most fascinated by the violin. My mother spent most of my early childhood accompanying me during concerts.

I remember performing, at five years old, the A minor Vivaldi concerto with an orchestra at Mannes College. Several years later, I was invited to perform at the United Nations with my father. At age 11, I was accepted to the Juilliard School to study with the famed Dorothy DeLay. The same year, I won the Juilliard Concerto Competition and, as a result, made my Lincoln Center debut.

All the while I continued to love listening to my father rehearse at home, especially with another pianist while preparing a concerto performance with orchestra. I learned a great deal about musicality from listening to him, but as a small child I always called him after a concert, wherever in the world he might be, to ask if he had made any mistakes!

As the repertoire I studied became more elaborate, I began to play more and more for him. He taught me how to perform as a soloist and the importance of a musical and moving interpretation. One recording of his that I was especially in love with was Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic, where my father, Yo-Yo Ma, and Anne-Sophie Mutter were soloists. I’ve been so fortunate to share the stage with him both in recitals and symphonic programs, where I would perform a concerto in one half and he in the other. My greatest memory was when he and I performed Mendelssohn’s Double Concerto. He has been my biggest inspiration and mentor. I even followed him to the Moscow Conservatory where, at age 13, he was the youngest student to have been accepted. His stories of friendship, mischief, and competition at the conservatory with such musicians as Vladimir Spivakov, David Oistrakh, Jacqueline Du Pré, Mstislav Rostropovich, Sviatoslav Richter, Leonid Kogan, and many others enthralled me and inspired me to earn my bachelor’s and master’s degrees there too.

What was it like studying with Dorothy DeLay?

I was very fortunate to study with the legendary Dorothy DeLay, among whose students were Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman, for eight years. She was brilliant in that she had a personalized approach to each and every student so that she could connect with them. She not only taught me how to perform at the highest level but also took a very close interest in my appearance. My shoes were to match the color of my dress, and the dress should “swoosh” while walking on and off stage. 

You are a New Yorker through and through. Did you come to Philharmonic concerts as a child or while you were studying at Juilliard? What do you remember about the Orchestra then?

I always attended concerts at the Philharmonic. At first, I particularly loved listening to great soloists perform the concertos I was studying at the time. Later, as I began to get acquainted with the orchestral repertoire, I was drawn by the powerful and lush sound of the Philharmonic. I was so captivated by each performance that I couldn’t wait to return! It is a dream come true for me to share the stage now with such inspiring and talented musicians.

Can you tell me about your preparation for performances? Do you have a routine or system to keep on top of all the music you are responsible for knowing?

I make sure to practice all the technically challenging spots earlier in the week. I also find it very helpful to play solo Bach sonatas and partitas to polish and refine my violin sound. When I’m done practicing, I find the best preparation before a concert is a good Pilates workout. It may not be obvious to the audience, but playing a violin in a gown while seated for hours at time takes a serious toll on the spine. Pilates is key for my keeping the alignment in my spine.

Tell me a story about a Philharmonic performance that was particularly memorable for you.

Performing the solo violin part with the Philharmonic in Andy Akiho’s Ricochet, Concerto for Ping Pong, Violin, Percussion, and Orchestra, last month on the Lunar Lunar Year concert was a dream come true. In fact, it was doubly special. First and foremost, it was deeply humbling to share the stage as soloist with my amazing colleagues. Secondly, on a personal note, my father had performed with the New York Philharmonic when I was just a toddler, so while I never got a chance to see him with this Orchestra, he was in the audience watching me.

Tell me about your family — I know one of your sons is a pianist.

I have two sons, Lucas and Alexander. Lucas, who is eight, has been studying the piano since he was three. He enjoys performing recitals several times a year at Mannes College, where he is enrolled. Alexander, who is four, has also started studying the piano earlier this year and is already showing great promise. They both have many other interests. Lucas fences and plays chess, and Alexander takes acting classes, which suit his personality quite well. They both attend a French immersion school and speak Russian fluently. Although my husband is a lawyer, when he isn’t pounding on his laptop’s keyboard he is doing the same on his drum set. When time permits, the whole family loves to jam. 

What would be a perfect free day for you?

Taking a bike ride with my family in Central Park or taking a ferry to Jacob Riis Park for a day at the beach.

Learn more about Elizabeth Zeltser