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Conductor's daughter comes home again to play

By Autumn D. F. Hopkins
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A graduate of the music program of Boston University with a master's from the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, Talia Schiff is an accomplished cellist. But she is also the product of a musical heritage rooted in the history of the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra.Her father, Charles Schiff, conducted the former Charleston Symphony Orchestra from 1965 to 1977. His passion for music and drive for perfection led a group of community musicians into an orchestra of professionals. Talia Schiff is carrying on his legacy.Schiff is a cellist in the all-female chamber music ensemble Elysian Camerata. The Philadelphia-based group will perform April 6 at Christ Church United Methodist as part of the Charleston Chamber Music Society season.What does she remember most about Charleston? Without hesitation, she replied, "Sunrise. I loved Sunrise."Schiff was in the third grade when her parents moved here from New York. She said her parents were looking for a safer place to raise a family, and Charleston offered a wholesome, and still culturally rich, alternative.She attended West Virginia University as a music major until her junior year, when she became serious about pursuing music as a career, and transferred to Boston University.With her father a cellist and a conductor and her mother an avid piano teacher, Schiff and her sister were immersed in classical music. Schiff began her musical career with the Charleston Youth Symphony under the tutelage of conductor John Lambros, who also was concertmaster of the CSO. Schiff said she hadn't been back to Charleston until two years ago when she returned for a George Washington High School class reunion.She and her husband, Mark Mercer, drove the back roads down from Philadelphia."I was surprised. It felt like coming home," Schiff said of the drive that took them past Seneca Rocks and Spruce Knob -- places she remembered visiting as a child.During the 2011 trip, she visited with Lambros, now age 95 and still teaching music lessons. She said Lambros helped her develop her musical skills first in the youth symphony, and then her father directed her when she moved on as a 16-year-old apprentice in the orchestra.
"It is different when you're the conductor's child. Everyone treats you a little cautiously," she recalled.Her father started the apprentice program as a way a musician could play and learn alongside a paid musician. It allowed local musicians to improve and to become professional without leaving to study somewhere else. Schiff played one year as an apprentice and one year as a paid member of the orchestra.Even as a paid member, though, she still wasn't fully committed to her music. After she transferred to Boston University, she said she realized she had only been a big fish in a small pond in Charleston. If playing music was what she wanted to do with her life, then it was time to get serious and make a commitment.Although the visit this weekend will be a quick one, she said it will be a reunion of sorts. Schiff's college roommate is driving down from Morgantown to see the show, and another friend is driving up from Richmond, Va. But, most important, her mother is flying in from Atlanta to be here, in their former hometown, to watch her play.
After the concert, Schiff said she hopes she'll be able to spend time sharing memories with those who touched her life so many years ago.As for Elysian Camerata, Schiff said the women have played together in different incarnations for 25 years, but seven years ago they made the commitment to form the group.For years, Schiff said, they did what musicians do to pay the bills: playing bar mitzvahs, weddings, in other orchestras. But once a year they would play as a group, pouring their hearts into their love of chamber music.After the annual concert, she said, the musicians were depressed because it would be another whole year before they could do it again. So they decided it was now or never. They would never be at a better place in their lives to try. They formed Elysian, meaning "heavenly," and they have been going strong ever since.With a four-show season in Philadelphia, an active touring season and a new CD available on, the women are pleased with their success.The Charleston Chamber Music Association will present Elysian Camerata at 7 p.m. April 6 at Christ Church United Methodist. Tickets are $20 and may be purchased in advance at
Autumn D.F. Hopkins may be emailed at
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