By Michelle Pressé
The tall and surprisingly light instrument sits in front of Shimon Walt similar to the way a loyal dog protects its master.
If the cello could talk, it would say that Walt has treated it loyally as well.
Raising the bow and closing his eyes, Walt allows the bow to touch the strings. François Couperin’s Pièces en Concert bleeds sweetly from the instrument, its song haunting the hallways of Walt’s Halifax home.
His favourite piece, he says, is whatever he is playing at the time.
“If music speaks to me, that’s all that matters,” says Walt, 63. “Loving music, all music, has always been enough.”
Walt was named the artist-in-residence for the 2012-13 St. Cecilia Concert Series, where he programmed music and artists for one-third of the series. He is also one of 13 founding members of Symphony Nova Scotia (SNS) and serves as an instructor for Dalhousie University’s music department.
Working with students allows him to pass his love of music down to a new generation. They meet at his home for lessons due to spacing issues at the school.
“Most people don’t get to hangout at their professor’s house,” says student Rosanna Burrill, a rosy-cheeked fiddler with firetruck-red lips.
“But it’s different with Shimon. He’s personal with everyone and has a genuine desire for people to learn and appreciate music.”
Where his story began
Walt’s passion for music began as a child in Eastern Europe. At 15, he fell in love with the cello and never looked back.
Born in Vilnius (then part of the Soviet Union), Walt spent his childhood learning music and languages. By studying hard and moving around, the native Yiddish-speaker learned traditional Hebrew, Russian, Polish and English.
Education was always a top priority for Walt, whose parents learned the hard way to never take anything for granted.
Being Jewish, their only chance of escaping the Holocaust was to flee deep within the forests of Siberia, where they met and married. They moved to Vilnius after the Second World War ended.
Although the war was over and the Walts had mainly Catholic friends, the anti-Semitic attitude that remained in Eastern Europe made their lives difficult. In 1967, they moved to Israel. Within months, the Israeli-Arab War broke out.
Walt stayed in Israel for almost nine years before receiving a scholarship to study in Boston, where he lived from 1974-76. Wanting to explore North America further, he went to Canada, not knowing that it would become his permanent home.
Now, his home is not just a place where he ends the day; it is a place where his students’ days begin.
“I feel sorry for students who don’t get to play music and eat cookies with their profs,” says Burrill.
Peggy, his wife of 20 years, often makes the students tea before heading upstairs to focus on her art. At the end of the day, the couple enjoy the quietness of their home.
“People assume I listen to music constantly, but music is what I do all day,” he says. “At the end of it, it’s important to hear your head.”
The Walts like to start their mornings by walking around the oval-shaped Halifax Shopping Centre. According to the mall, three laps around the interior is equivalent to one kilometre, which has helped Walt shed some unwanted pounds while spending time with his wife.
The rest of his day is usually spent in meetings with SNS or giving lessons. Sometimes, he ends his day at Dal’s pub, The Grawood, even if they do not always play “music with substance.”
“I can hear nothing but the bass, so I have to ask them to change it sometimes,” says Walt. “It’s a problem, especially with some of the lyrics to these new songs. I don’t know what they were drinking or smoking when they wrote them.”
Playing for royalty
Since Walt lives so close to campus, many of his neighbours are students. Most have no idea that he is a cellist or that he has played for people like the Queen.
Walt played for Her Majesty twice when she visited Halifax, once with Jean Chrétien and again with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
“When Harper was there,” Walt laughs, “he went down in a line to shake everyone in the symphony’s hand. One of my colleagues had a special hatred for Harper and said, ‘Do I have to shake his hand?’ I told him, ‘Of course!’”
Walt has also played for many other members of the Royal family, such as Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales. He recalls playing a concert attended by Prince Philip, who found Walt at the end to ask if it was live because “it was just that good.”
But the members of the Royal Family are not the only famous people Walt has been introduced to while working in the music industry. Through his company, Walt Music, he has been able to book artists such as Kanye West and Michael Bublé.
“One thing I remember about Michael Bublé is that he was making eyes at my daughter. But I have to say, he’s a very honourable man. I remember him fondly.”
Being able to meet interesting people and share stories about his encounters puts a smile on Walt’s face, but not nearly as much as when he sees his students walking up his front steps.
“I love having the opportunity to give people the gift I got 48 years ago. It’s amazing to watch them improve and know that maybe one day, they’ll be playing for the Queen.” Considering the Queen’s age, Walt adds, “or maybe the next one.”
Age and time has recently become a pressing subject for Walt.
A couple of months ago, doctors thought he had a heart attack.
“We’re tenants in this world – we’re just renting,” he says. “Thankfully, my heart is fine, but I didn’t know it at the time. That’s when you realize we’re not indestructible. Every day is a gift.”
CORRECTION: March 19, 2014 | An earlier version of this story stated that Shimon Walt booked artists such as Kanye West and Michael Bublé through Symphony Nova Scotia. In fact, he booked them through his own company, Walt Music.