Hathersage's international music star, Lizzie Ball
PUBLISHED: 10:06 17 October 2013 | UPDATED: 09:51 15 November 2013
Mike Smith meets the highly talented vocalist and violinist as she performs on home turf in aid of charity
On a hot summer’s evening in July, Lizzie Ball was back where she once belonged. The highly talented violinist and vocalist, who has electrified audiences at some of the world’s great musical venues, including Madison Square Garden in New York, the South Bank in London, Teatro Colón in Buenos Aries and the Philharmonie in Berlin, had returned to the village where she was born to put on a charity concert on behalf of the Hathersage branch of the Royal British Legion.
Lizzie and her all-star band, featuring Nicolas Meier and Pete Oxley on guitar, Sam Burgess on bass and Paul Calviacuti on drums, delighted their large audience with an eclectic programme, ranging from classical pieces and jazz standards to their own jazzed-up versions of songs made famous by Stevie Wonder and the Beatles. A few weeks later, Lizzie would be appearing in the Proms at the Albert Hall, which is a far cry from a large marquee in a field in Hathersage, but, after setting everyone’s feet tapping to a fabulous rendition of ‘Get Back’, she expressed her delight at being back in ‘the beautiful part of the world’ where she was brought up.
When I asked Lizzie about those formative years, she told me how music had played a big part in her early life. Her mother, who was in the audience for the Hathersage concert, has always had wide-ranging musical tastes and her father, Chris Ball, was a very accomplished jazz pianist. As a child, Lizzie would mischievously mark her favourite notes with a pen on the keyboard of the family’s piano, but it soon became apparent that her first love was not the piano, but the violin. She said, ‘At the age of seven, I heard a violin being played on the radio and decided, there and then, that it was the instrument I wanted to play.’
Lizzie’s musical education reads like the classic progression for a high achiever. She became leader of the City of Sheffield Youth Orchestra; obtained top-grade A-level passes in Music, History and English at Lady Manners School in Bakewell; gained a place at Cambridge University to read Music; became principal of the Cambridge University Chamber Orchestra and did postgraduate studies at the Royal College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music, where she studied under the master violinists Yossi Zivoni and David Takeno.
However, from the very beginning other influences were making their mark. With a jazz pianist for a father, it was inevitable that she grew up listening to people like Herbie Hancock, Julian Joseph and Ella Fitzgerald; as a teenager, she loved the thriving indie music scene in Sheffield, just over the hill from Hathersage; and, at the age of ten, she was taken by her mother to see a concert given by the violinist Nigel Kennedy. Recalling how she had been riveted by his performance, she said, ‘I remember gripping the rail on the balcony in front of me and thinking that this guy with the crazy hair is absolutely amazing. He became my role model.’
Fifteen years later, Lizzie would meet up with Nigel Kennedy and he would go on to play a big part in her career. In the meantime, she was determined not to be straightjacket as a classical musician. During her time at Cambridge, she formed Classico Latino with Colombian pianist Ivan Guevara and cellist Graham Walker. The trio came up with arrangements and compositions of their own and even made a recording at the legendary Abbey Road studios. Later, they would tour Latin America with their music.
Lizzie has been a genre-bending musician ever since her undergraduate days, happily putting her own stamp on anything from South African lullabies to Argentinian Vidalas and from jazz classics by Duke Ellington to classical pieces by Bach. She has a magnetic stage presence that not only lets her audiences know that she is having a ball, but draws them in to having a ball with her. As a violinist alone, Lizzie would have been a magical performer with wide appeal but, in her mid-twenties, she added another string to her bow, which would become as important as her playing of the violin.
Recalling how this came about, Lizzie said, ‘I had always liked belting out a song while I was driving and listening to the car radio and I’d always sung in the shower, but I decided to add vocals to my performances after I’d sung along to a jam session that some musicians were having at one of my birthday parties when I was in my mid-twenties. It was their suggestion that I should think about singing on stage.’
Lizzie has a wonderfully strong singing voice and now switches effortlessly between violin and vocals during her stage performances. Her vocal versatility embraces jazz, Latin-American, folk and rock, and she has even been a vocal soloist with the Philharmonia Orchestra, performing with them, along with a 100-strong choir, at the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi and she has toured Germany as a guest violinist with the vocal group New York Polyphony.
Performing as violinist and more recently as vocalist, she has appeared alongside many other famous names, including Rod Stewart, Russell Watson, Rick Wakeman, Kanye West and the Cuban master Omar Puente. Earlier this year, she performed in front of 20,000 people with rock guitar legend Jeff Beck at the Crossroads Festival in Madison Square Garden, which was curated by Eric Clapton.
Last year, Lizzie formed Classical Kicks and was signed up for a quarterly slot at Ronnie’s Bar in the upper room of Ronnie Scott’s world-famous jazz Soho club, after giving the first classical performance at the club in its 55-year history. She now works regularly with James Pearson, the musical director at Ronnie Scott’s, and the pair love pushing musical boundaries, writing new material together and performing in Lizzie’s own band.
Ronnie Scott’s Club has played another important role in her career, for it was here that she encountered Nigel Kennedy again, fifteen years after seeing him perform in Sheffield. She told him how he had always been her musical hero and he reciprocated by inviting her to perform duets with him and to be the concert master for the European tour of his newly-formed Orchestra of Life. Following the multi-venue tour, Nigel told her, ‘Your appointment as leader of my Orchestra of Life has been so amazing that I am even proud of myself for asking you.’
Lizzie’s other vocal and violin performances have taken her well beyond Europe to venues worldwide, but she has never forgotten her roots. When she returned to Hathersage for a concert in July, she clearly had a ball performing on a perfect English summer evening and in front of an audience that included members of her family and lots of friends from her younger days. Those of us who were privileged to be there had a ball too. n