Maja Elliott: British classical pianist with a taste for jazz

Tuesday 1st May 1990

Gifted piano player MAJA ELLIOTT was quizzed by Alison Pooley.

MAja Elliott
MAja Elliott

Perched high on top of a ' mountain overlooking the bustling high rise of Shatin in Hong Kong's New Territories lies Tao Fung Shan Christian Centre. This peaceful haven far above the noise and constant motion of a city which like its big sister Hong Kong is on the go seven days a week, is reached by a steep and winding path.

Many Chinese make the climb to come and admire the neo-traditional lines of buildings and courtyards designed by a Norwegian architect in 1932.

But how did a twenty one year old English pianist find herself making that same trek? And what did she find there that so changed her life?

Maja Elliot born in Abu Dhabi to a Swedish mother and English father spent her childhood years with her mother in England after her parents' divorce.

From that time, Maja then five years old began "tinkling around" on the piano, playing tunes heard on the radio and proving a natural talent. Eventually learning classical repertoire with Monica Hellewell and Jazz/blues etc. from composer husband David.

Success was expected of her early: aged 12 a BBC TV education appearance was followed by many other small concerts and festivals especially in southern England. On holiday visits to her father in Hong Kong she made Radio and TV appearances both classically and Jazz based.

After gaining a scholarship to Bryaston, Dorset, Maja went onto a performers course at Guildhall School of Music, London, studying classical music with James Gibb and Paul Roberts as well as jazz with Lionel Grigson.

However, while at college a 'dark cloud' of depression settled over her, the joy and meaning of life seemed to escape her, and she left early to work and travel. Lack of dedication came from her feelings of loneliness, isolation and loss of identity as she continued to search for meaning and love in her life.

Returning to Hong Kong work poured in for her; accompanist at Academy of Performing Arts, teaching, hotel work, Recital in the Cathedral, even a cruise up the Yangsze!

Meanwhile her relations with her father and step-mother had deteriorated. But then came her totally unexpected visit to Tao Fung Shan.

"A flatmate introduced me to one of the team." Maja remembers, "He had so much joy. When I heard about his work helping drug addicts and people in the refugee camps, I though 'how amazing' considering most are out to make loads of money. I was so aware of Hong Kong's superficiality - the money wasted on night life, etcetera."

"I was searching for love, a Father's love. Relationships didn't work. I thought I should be happy with lots of work earning lots of but the music, especially The Wine Bars, was like 'wall paper'- not terribly creative."

Maja went to a service at the Tao Fung Shan. "I was so moved by the genuineness of the Christians. Afterwards we went with them on a march following Tiananmen Square. I saw their hope and direction.

"I knew I had to sort myself out. So I stayed in their retreat for a few days. One night one of the Norwegian girls talked with me until about 3am. She sat there saying just how much like a father God is and how much He loves me. I couldn't believe it at first!"

Two weeks later back in London, Maja met a Youth With A Mission (YWAM) girl in the South Bank Coffee shop. "Again, she told me how she found direction in her life through Christ. She invited me to stay with her as I had no accommodation. A few days later I made a commitment."

After a short period Maja had her first experience playing in a specifically Christian environment YWAM's 'Go Fest.' That was followed by a spell of outreach in Amsterdam. There she met American born gospel singer Karen Lafferty (best known for her "Seek Ye First The Kingdom Of God") Karen ministered deeply to Maja.

"I began to look at how to use my music. Karen stressed the importance of fellowship and personal spiritual growth." From there Maja visited the Christian Artist Seminars at De Bron where Esther Erkel was giving master classes. Explains Maja, "I had not planned to go back to classical music but, when playing to her, felt an old pull to become a concert pianist. She agreed and offered to teach me; an answer to prayer, and just three weeks after Amsterdam outreach was in Switzerland.

When you've just become a Christian you've so many things you need to share and be healed from. Talking pigeon German you can't get across anything very intellectual or deep, so I planned to return to England.

Leen and Ria Riviere visited Esther. Maja played for them and they invited the gifted pianist to play at the 'Gospel Gala' in February 1990 in Rotterdam

"It was an honour - never having played in anything that major. I chose "Reflets Dans L'Eau" by Debussey and "Blue Jam" by David Hellewell, my old piano teacher. Maja feels she's learning many things about the relationship between her faith and her art.

Esther taught me the importance of developing my faith hand in hand with being a Christian; learning to be at peace while playing by meditating and praying beforehand. I used to get very nervous before a concert, now I pray against it. God has really seen me through."

Another thing which has altered radically is Maja's concept of 'sacred music'.

"It was part of my public school experience; I enjoyed singing hymns although not understanding the faith, about Jesus or prayer that it really works. Take Handel's "Messiah"; I can see God in it now and not just the music.

Maja is not sure how much longer she'll be happy to be presented, at the Rottenberg 'Gospel Gala' as a 'classical pianist from Hong Kong.'

"It's very hard in the classical world coping with the pressure of having a gift. A lot of people make idols of that gift and worship it. I realized the pressure; to be someone and to make a name for yourself - image and money. Then there is the almost 'religiousness' of classical concerts!

"I never considered myself a straight classical player; however I cultivated a 'classical' image but without knowing who I was.

"God gave me creative abilities before but now it has really freed me up having him as the centre and foundation of my self expression, something I once lost from my music. I feel that God can speak through my playing, giving joy to people - maybe even healing and all on a very high level. My desire to achieve is not lost but is now rechannelled to God's glory.

"By being so inspired by God and His perfectionism I want to show the (musical) perfectionists, intellectuals and bourgeoisie that He is perfection; that its from Him and not me." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Alsion Pooley
Alsion Pooley is an Australian-born professional violinist currently living in North London.


Reader Comments

Posted by Cynthia Erkel in USA @ 20:40 on Nov 19 2009

Very interested in your testimony and would love to know how to reach Esther Erkel as we have lost touch. We are distantly related. is our website. Michael, my husband, is an artist and I am a writer. We love the Lord.

The opinions expressed in the Reader Comments are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms.

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