Jewish Journal

Benjamin Wallfisch has music in his genes

by Rick Schultz

Posted on Sep. 10, 2012 at 4:26 pm

Benjamin Wallfisch. Photo by Radovan Subin

Benjamin Wallfisch. Photo by Radovan Subin

Film composers who venture into the hallowed domain of the concert hall are sometimes greeted with raised eyebrows. Maybe that’s why film-music scholar Jon Burlingame called movie scores a “much-maligned stepchild of 20th-century composition.” Yet for English composer and conductor Benjamin Wallfisch, the differentiation has never been a problem. 

“Film composers have their own distinct voices,” Wallfisch, 33, said. “As a composer, you never exist in a vacuum. I love the fact that Shostakovich and Martinu and Walton, who were such accomplished concert composers, had very active lives in film. Shostakovich wrote huge amounts of film music.”

During a seven-year apprenticeship to Italian composer Dario Marianelli, Wallfisch orchestrated Marianelli’s 2008 Oscar-winning score for “Atonement.” Wallfisch also conducted the film’s soundtrack with the English Chamber Orchestra, where he had served as associate conductor beginning at age 22.

Having recently moved to Santa Monica, Wallfisch is now scoring three films — “Summer in February,” an Edwardian true-life drama, “Hours,” a suspense thriller, and due later this year, “Desert Dancer,” set in Iran.

Soon audiences also will have a chance to hear Wallfisch in his other guise, of concert-music composer. On Nov. 10, he is scheduled to conduct the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) in the premiere of his Violin Concerto, along with Beethoven’s youthful Symphony No. 2 and Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings, at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. The program repeats the next evening at UCLA’s Royce Hall. 

The concerto was commissioned for Tereza Stanislav, LACO’s assistant concertmaster, in honor of her 10th anniversary with the orchestra. 

“This project is the most personally involved thing I’ve ever done,” Stanislav said, adding that she was initially a bit concerned about Wallfisch’s recent sustained immersion in composing for film. Might it dilute his more uncompromising concert music? 

But Stanislav said she was relieved when she saw the violin part of the new work last month. “His concerto is a serious, big work,” she said. “Ben does some interesting colors on the violin, with long, lyrical lines.”

Though the Calgary-born Stanislav, 37, was still waiting (at the time of this interview) to see the complete orchestral score, she described the concerto’s first movement as “a perpetual motion, with Ben alternating a really interesting quiet effect with a loud, energetic section. I’m curious to see how that will fit,” she said, “because I like the way it sounds on the violin.”

Wallfisch said the violin’s duality has always fascinated him. “On the one hand, it’s an incredibly lyrical instrument,” he said, “but, on the other, you have this fiery virtuoso machine where you can do the most extraordinary feats of human agility and aggression. I was very keen to explore those extremes.” 

The concerto follows the traditional three-movement form, but expands it to include an introduction and a big cadenza. “There’s a very emotional cantabile core to the work,” Wallfisch said, “but I’m also interested in how you set up and build tension until it’s unbearable.”

Wallfisch’s love for narrative will no doubt be evident in the violin concerto. “That’s why I’m so passionate about writing film music,” he said. “As a composer, you respond to the drama, and make music that feels absolutely right and integral to the drama.”

But Wallfisch also observed that, unlike film music, a concert piece allows him to push the boundaries of harmony. “It’s all about the music, so therefore you can make gestures which are more dramatic or extreme,” he said. “You don’t want film music to draw too much attention to itself.”

An early influence was John Williams’ symphonic score for “E.T.,” which Wallfisch recalls hearing as a 5-year-old. “I remember the experience of watching the finale, where they’re saying their goodbyes,” Wallfisch said. “There’s basically no dialogue. The music just does the most incredible job of making you go on the journey emotionally.”

Wallfisch was raised in London in a distinguished musical family. His mother, Elizabeth Wallfisch, is a Baroque violinist and his father, Raphael Wallfisch, is one of England’s foremost cellists of his generation. His late grandfather, Peter Wallfisch, was a concert pianist, and his 88-year-old grandmother, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, a cellist living in London, was a member of the women’s orchestra of Auschwitz. A brother and aunt also play the cello.

“The cello runs as a kind of leitmotif in my family, in a really good way,” Wallfisch said. “But I managed not to be a cellist.”

Instead, the composer chose the piano at an early age. “We all had a natural love of music,” Wallfisch said. “The other thing about growing up in a musical family — there’s absolutely no illusion as to how much work is required. It’s not just something you can pick up and hope it runs.

Wallfisch recalls his father “working every morning, without exception — if he was home — on a Bach Cello Suite. That was his daily warm up. But when I was 6, I asked him, ‘Don’t you know that piece yet?’ ”

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch was another profound influence on the composer. Her life, literally, was saved by her instrument, when the women’s orchestra of Auschwitz needed a cellist. She played marches as slave laborers left the camp, and if they returned. She gave concerts for the SS. Toward the end of the war the Nazis took away her cello, and she was sent to Bergen-Belsen, where she was surrounded by disease and had virtually no food for six months before the liberation. 

In her book, “Inherit the Truth, 1939-1945,” Lasker-Wallfisch’s 1996 account of that terrible time, she recalls that when the Allies arrived, they found food stockpiled by the Nazis. “They just hadn’t given it to us,” she told a Guardian reporter in 2005 when discussing that Holocaust experience. 

“She’s still going strong, giving talks aimed at educating people about the Holocaust,” Wallfisch said. She even attended a concert three years ago to hear her grandson conduct Beethoven’s 9th in Hamburg, Germany. 

“If she could fly out to see the Violin Concerto’s premiere, she would,” Wallfisch said. “She is one of the most friendly and loving people you’ll ever meet, but she can be quite scary. She’s a very strong character.”

As the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, Wallfisch said it was hard to absorb what his grandmother went through. “When you’re young, and even when you’re an adult, it’s impossible to comprehend what happened,” he said. “But she always said it in a very factual way, quite unemotional. And it was important to her that we understood that this really happened, and that humans are capable of destroying life in such an unimaginable, industrial way.”

Wallfisch believes his grandmother’s experience has affected him in ways that are not entirely clear. “I don’t carry a burden on my shoulders, and that’s a lot to do with the fact that my grandmother was so open about it,” he said. “There was never a sense of heaviness. It was very much about information.”

He added: “But, you know, there she is. I saw her a few days ago, and we were sitting in the garden. Her sleeves were rolled up, and there’s her tattoo. It’s always there and it’s always that reminder. She always taught me the importance of respecting your fellow human beings.”

For more information and to purchase tickets for Wallfisch’s Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra concerts, visit  laco.org.

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