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MUSOs of the ASO: Shirin Lim, Principal 1st Violin

19 May 2020
  • Musician Spotlight
by Adelaide Symphony Orchestra
MUSOs of the ASO: Shirin Lim, Principal 1st Violin

Principal 1st Violin Shirin Lim has celebrated 30 years with the orchestra. Her beautiful golden violin has been a part of the orchestra even longer than she has, as it belonged to her first teacher in Adelaide, Harold Fairhurst. She is nostalgic about Ravel’s Pavane For a Dead Princess which she loved growing up, has a sweet tooth and would love to be able to sing!

Take some time and enjoy getting to know Shirin and get lost in her many wonderful music memories.

I was born in Singapore but my family came to Adelaide when I was nearly nine.

After I finished high school I went to the University of Adelaide and did a BMus (Hons) degree in Music Performance. I was lucky enough to get a German scholarship (DAAD) after that, which enabled me to study in Detmold with Professor Tibor Varga. I remained in Germany for four and a half years.

I knew I’d make a career in music when:
I always liked playing music but, like many kids, I didn’t really like practising. It wasn’t until the later years of high school when I started to enjoy practising, and by the time I went to university, I knew this was what I wanted to do.

How did you choose the violin?
I started learning piano when I was about 6, because my elder sister played the piano. One day I leaned back and fell off the piano stool, so I gave up! My younger brother was given a violin one Christmas or birthday, and I decided I wanted to learn that too. My sister is still a professional pianist, my brother gave up violin and learnt piano instead. Today he plays occasionally, and works as a scientist.

Is there anything special about your violin? Have you given it a name? Does it have any quirks?
I am lucky to have a gorgeous, beautiful violin, made in Verona by a luthier called Giacomo Zanoli. It has a beautiful back, and a golden coloured varnish. It actually played in the ASO for decades before I joined the orchestra, as it belonged to my first teacher in Adelaide, Harold Fairhurst. So, my violin has been in the ASO longer than I have!

Describe the best thing about being a musician:
I think there are so many good things about being a musician! For one thing, we get to play amazing and wonderful works, some of which have been written by the greatest humans who have ever lived, or who are still living. To be surrounded by other musicians too, and breathe and feel music together is something that can’t really be explained – it’s like magic. But probably the very best thing is that sense of connection with other people – audience, colleagues, everyone.

Music to me is… being connected to the world.

Who has influenced you most as a musician?
All of my violin teachers have influenced me a lot. When I went to study in Germany with Mr. Varga, I changed a lot about how I played, technically. Then after my studies with him, I also taught as his assistant. I learnt a lot during those years, as I still do, from my teaching. My parents were not musicians, but they were extremely discerning listeners. So, really, the influences come from everyone, but Mr. Varga probably changed the way I understood music.

Which solo or moment in the violin orchestral repertoire is your favourite?
The orchestral sound is so rich in colour and that’s what I love about the symphonic repertoire. There are too many “most favourite” bits of music, but Strauss Four Last Songs might just have to be one of my top most favourite things.

My most memorable performance/s with the ASO:
Again, too many to be able to list them all, but the two Ring Cycles with Jeffrey Tate and Asher Fisch, Parsifal with Jeffrey, the Sibelius festival with Arvo Volmer, Salome with Arvo, Sibelius Violin Concerto with Gil Shaham as soloist, Dvorak Violin Concerto with Kristof Barati – this is probably a performance that no one else will remember, but it left a totally indelible impression on me. He is still one of my favourite violinists.

COVID-19 has put a hold over ASO concerts. What do you miss the most about not being able to perform?
I miss seeing the people. The whole point of practising and rehearsing is so that we can bring something special to an audience, and to go back to what I was saying earlier, it’s really about communicating and making connections.

Despite not being able to perform in concerts you still have to remain playing fit in order for when concerts resume. How many hours a day are you practising, and what repertoire are you selecting? Where in the house do you practise?
It’s a long time since I measured my practise in terms of “how long” it is. I guess when we were students, there were timetables and things slotted into spaces in the schedule. These days I will practise to achieve certain things so sometimes that might take a long time, depending on what I’m working on, and other times I might just be doing some technical exercises, which might not take so long. I’m lucky to live with another musician, my husband Martin (Butler, viola) so we have spent some time in these last weeks playing duos. I’ve practised Bach, technical work, some Kreisler, and some solo violin pieces.

When I’m not listening to classical music what do you listen to?
Umm…I’m a classical music nerd, I’m afraid. I know a lot of musicians say that after a whole day of classical music, they don’t want to listen to anymore, but I can’t get enough of it. I don’t dislike other music, and am happy to hear it, but don’t usually choose to listen to it.

Name three pieces of music you love, and why?
When I was growing up, one of my favourite pieces was the Ravel Pavane For a Dead Princess. I still love it. I guess it’s that nostalgia and sadness, it’s just a really simple but very evocative piece of music. Then a little later on, I went through a Lieder phase. It was probably a combination of the romantic poetry and the melodic writing that appealed. Schumann Mondnacht has got to be one of the most exquisite songs ever written. Probably the one favourite piece that has always been there over the years would be the Bach Chaconne, from the D-minor Partita for Solo Violin, which must be the most perfect thing ever written.

Do you come from a musical family?
Despite me and my siblings playing, my parents were not musicians. My father played classical guitar but only had some lessons as an adult. My mother probably just never had the opportunity to learn but I believe she had a very good ear. I have often wondered how she could be such a discerning listener, and have strong instincts for interpretation and have a developed sense of style with no training at all. My siblings and I were all blessed to be given the opportunity to learn music.

Shirin and violist husband Martin Butler at a favourite local cafe

What’s your idea of a perfect day in Adelaide? 
Waking up to a perfect day means it would have rained in the night and the morning would be sunny and bright. We would go down to the beach near where we live for a coffee at our favourite café, then go and sit on a bench by the beach for a while. Then we would go home and do some work. In the evening we would go to the Town Hall and play a concert!

What piece of music never fails to move you? 
Different music moves me at different times. Feeling the pain and suffering of some composers’ lives through their music is very powerful sometimes. Sometimes it’s just the richness and beauty of the sound that will just overcome me.

What’s your favourite type of food? 
I love food, any food! I have a terrible sweet tooth, but I know that’s not good, so I try to control myself!

What books are on your nightstand? 
I’ve just finished a book of short essays by Alfred Brendel and I’m about to start Mark Wigglesworth’s book.

Do you have any hobbies? 
I love gardening, cooking, reading, playing music, listening to music, and Netflix!!

Shirin and Martin in New York City

More events to be announced

Matinee Concerts


Elder Hall

Wed 19 Oct 2022

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Along with moments that float like a feather on the breeze, Haydn’s concerto has a finale that make you want to kick up your heels!

Session Wed 19 Oct 2022, 11:30am

Rehearsals Unwrapped


Adelaide Town Hall

Wed 26 Oct 2022

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Let the ASO take you on a fun-filled guided tour of the music you know and love, in the company of charismatic conductor and host Guy Noble.

Session Wed 26 Oct 2022, 9:30am

See Learning Program

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