The much-loved British violinist Tasmin Little joins our editor for lunch at L’Autre Pied to talk Beethoven, birthdays and bows – having bought a new one at the latest Amati Exhibition…
Tasmin Little more than deserves a little celebration this festive season. Having turned 50 this year, she can happily look back on over a quarter of a century as one of Britain’s best-loved violin soloists, a career that has notched up more than 1000 concerts worldwide. She’s as vivid a personality as ever, petite but radiant – maybe her theatrical family background (her father is the actor George Little) has armed her with the ability to project sunniness and warmth to the back of any concert hall apparently without effort.
Of course, everything takes more work than the audience knows, and Little’s vivacious exterior appears to mask a ferociously well organised existence. As a divorced mother of two, she’s awake early for the school run, and sometimes the juggling act of family and work has to be timed virtually to the second. ‘It can feel relentless,’ she admits. ‘There are days when I don’t ever get to sit down. Often when it’s time for me to go and do my job I’ve been up for 13 hours. Fortunately I always wake up now at 6.30am, whether I need to or not.’
A Little boot on L’autre pied
But all that organisation is carried out with distinct flair. While some of my wonderful Editor’s Lunch interviewees have meekly accepted a suggestion for venue and menu, Little not only sprang at the chance to nominate the sleek, contemporary French restaurant L’Autre Pied, off Marylebone High Street; she also researched an Internet voucher for a special deal on the seven-course tasting menu. That’s what we call forward planning.
Very wonderful it is, from the initial starter – the lightest possible pumpkin mousse, topped with basil oil, burnished, crunchy toasted pumpkin seeds and crystals of ginger – to the attentiveness with which dishes have been adapted to my gluten problem. Course after mini-course, each with discreet yet perfectly placed presentation, offers contrasts of texture and colour with complementary flavours, whether it’s a soupcon of tender sliced venison with chestnuts and pureed onion, a gorgeously fresh palate-cleanser of lemon mousse and granita or the several different chocolatey components of dessert served alongside, of all things, Guinness ice cream.
If you came to the Amati Exhibition at the Langham, London, in November this year, you might have spotted Little in the crowds milling around the display tables. She came along simply out of interest – but the day had unexpected consquences. ‘I wanted to try a violin, but I didn’t have a bow,’ she recounts. The bowmaker Helge Netland, who was displaying his stock opposite, handed her a suitable example to use.
‘I absolutely loved the bow and I couldn’t stop playing,’ Little declares. ‘It was such a terrific, beautiful stick, it did everything I wanted, and a violinist friend there also had a go on it and echoed everything I’d felt about it. I ended up walking away with it after a few wonderful smoky cocktails in the Langham bar! I tried it at 6.45am the next morning before the school run, with my Guadagnini, and the violin and bow decided it was love at first sight. I decided to sell my second bow, which I was no longer happy with in any case, and purchase the Netland instead. I’m very happy with it indeed. Thank you, Amati!’
Turning 50 is a landmark for anybody, and Little is no exception. True to form, she has marked the occasion in style by tackling on disc one of the great violin journeys of the core repertoire: the ten Beethoven sonatas, which she has recorded with her frequent duo partner, the pianist Martin Roscoe. They launch the set with a Wigmore Hall recital on 10 February.
Why Beethoven? Well, why not? ‘When you’re a violinist there are various mountains you feel you need to climb, because they are wonderful mountains,’ Little smiles. ‘Beethoven’s violin sonatas are ten amazing works and I just had to do them, because I wouldn’t have felt I had achieved all my mountains without that.’ And why now? ‘Because I wasn’t ready before. I think that, though I might have learned some of them as long ago as school days, there’s so much in them that before you do them all, you have to feel totally comfortable with them.
‘They’ve been like a strong pair of shoes you’ve had for a long time; you’ve moulded bits of them to the way you are, but they’re not going to wear out or to change their intrinsic nature. I feel I’ve trodden enough miles now in my Beethoven shoes that I feel the performances I’ve been able to give are the result of all the years I’ve had playing them – and playing everything else as well, because you need perspective with these pieces. And now I feel I have something genuinely of myself to give.’
She treasures her partnership with Roscoe, who is only one of three pianists she works with on a regular basis (the other two are Piers Lane and John Lenehan). ‘Our partnership started about 28 years ago,’ she enthuses, ‘so not only do we have the terrific rapport we’ve always had, but we’ve got so much concert experience together.’ Such musical relationships grow more and more rewarding as time goes by: ‘We can be spontaneous because we’re always listening to each other at every second, and we’re technically capable of adjusting things to complement what the other person is doing. That has contributed much to our ability to get truly into the spirit of what we both consider Beethoven represents.’
Wild, crazy and a great wit
That includes a side of the composer she feels is often misunderstood. ‘There’s so much wit and humour in his music,’ she says. “Many people think of him as a dramatic composer, maybe slightly crazy and wild, and with some amazing lyricism. But most people don’t tend to talk about Beethoven’s great sense of humour. I feel that he is a superb wit. Martin and I wanted to bring out this element: it can be almost black humour at times, and I really enjoy that aspect because I feel it brings an extra dimension to his music that I sometimes feel is missing in certain performances.
‘There’s an element of surprise that’s often inherent in the writing, with dynamic changes from fortissimo to subito pianissimo or the other way around; sometimes he wants to be dramatic and jolt you; but other times it’s done in quite a playful way. In the scherzo of the “Spring” Sonata the hilarious idea of having the violinist never able to catch up with the pianist is absolute genius! He’s a giant, of course, but who says giants can’t have a sense of humour?’
‘I miss Menuhin’
Speaking of giants, next year marks the centenary of Yehudi Menuhin, whom Little credits as one of the biggest influences not only on her violin playing but also on her life in general. Having started playing the violin very early in childhood – the recorder, encountered while she was stuck at home quarantined for chicken pox, had proved far too easy – she won a scholarship to the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey, aged eight.
‘Growing up at the Menuhin School, there were so many influences from his whole ethos. He was groundbreaking in many, many ways. He went into China when almost nobody else did and would bring back students to the school. He was the first true crossover artist, playing jazz, working with Ravi Shankar, going on TV with Morcambe and Wise – all these things that people weren’t really doing at the time. He had a mission literally to bring music to the people, and to use music as a way to bring people together.
‘He initiated Live Music Now, going into the community – this had a huge effect on all of us, and because I had done an element of that at school, when I did my Naked Violin project I wanted to make that a big part of it. So he influenced just about every part of me as a musician.’
Little broke ground of her own when she launched her project The Naked Violin in 2008. She recorded three contrasting works for solo violin – by Bach, Bartók and Paul Patterson – and released them on the Internet free of charge, along with lavish supporting material, listening notes and interactive facilities designed to appeal to the widest possible audiences, who would have no excuse not to explore the music for the first time if it cost nothing. Alongside this she began an outreach programme, performing all over the UK in schools, shelters for the homeless, shopping centres and far-flung locations with scant access to live music – including an oil rig.
‘Menuhin was a great humanitarian and had tremendous respect for people, no matter who they were or where they came from. He’d treat people exactly the same whether they were kings, queens or the newest young people at the school,’ she remembers. ‘I was only eight when I went to the school, but he was so nice and kind, and he treated me with respect and gentleness. He was a tremendous human being and a really important role model for many, many of us who were there. I really miss him.’
‘I’m quite happy with the musician I am’
Thinking back, she’s pleased her training took her in the direction it did. Her main teacher at the Menuhin School and subsequently the Guildhall School of Music and Drama was Pauline Scott; after that, rather than heading for one of the big American schools, she went to Toronto to study with the Hungarian violin professor Lorand Fenyves, whose teaching she had encountered and adored at a summer school in Banff. ‘I sometimes wonder if I might have had a bigger career in the US had I gone to study there instead,’ she remarks. “But then, that would have made me into a different kind of musician, and I’m quite happy with the musician I am!’
Attending a tiny, specialist boarding school from such a young age is not, she agrees, exactly a normal childhood. Yet her parents kept her feet firmly on the ground. ‘Perhaps because Dad was an actor, there was no special status accorded to me just because I happened to be good at the violin. I still had to do the washing up,” she says. “I wasn’t treated in any way differently and I think that’s very important. My father, who’s a Yorkshireman, was very down-to-earth and practical. So I grew up with that as a sort of balancing factor.’
George Little’s Yorkshire background influenced other aspects of his daughter’s musical life, too; notably, he had a passion for Delius, which she has always shared. She has long been associated with the Bradford-born composer’s music, and his Suite for violin and orchestra features on the latest disc in her series for Chandos of British violin concertos. Her recording of the Walton Concerto, conducted by Ed Gardner, was a runaway success and her Elgar, with Andrew Davis, garnered glowing reviews.
Here she is in the gorgeous Delius ‘Legende’, from an earlier recording…
Alongside the Delius Suite on the latest release is the violin concerto by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, an enormously appealing work still far too rarely performed, despite its gorgeous slow movement: ‘It’s stunning,’ Little confirms. ‘It’s a very tricky piece to make it work structurally and I doubt that it will really be entering the mainstream repertoire – but it’s so inventive.’
Little’s brand-new Netland bow is partnering the violin she has had since 1991, a beautiful Guadagnini of 1757. ‘It’s a lifelong companion,’ she says, ‘and a wonderful instrument. I did have my “‘Latin lover” on loan for 13 years – the Regent Strad – which I had to return about five years ago. That was a fantastic instrument too, but I must admit it took some getting used to. It didn’t suit every venue – it was fantastic for big halls as it had a huge sound that projected magnificently. But I found that for smaller, more intimate places, the Guadagnini was often better suited.’
Next year will find Little and her Guadagnini undertaking some far-flung travels: notably, to Australia to take part in the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville with another close colleague, the Australian pianist Piers Lane. Additionally, he has recently assumed the directorship of the Sydney International Piano Competition and has drafted in Little to work on sonata repertoire with contestants in the chamber music round that is to feature in the 2016 session.
She’ll also be on the jury for the Menuhin Competition, which is being held at the Royal Academy of Music for its namesake’s centenary. ‘I was involved in the very first one in Folkestone,’ says Little, ‘and even then it was international – but what it’s evolved into is something he’d be very proud of. It really is ranked as one of the top three competitions in the world. It’s got huge reputation and when I was last on the jury, in Beijing, the standard was astronomically high. I’m going to be very interested to hear the next crop of entrants.’
It’s 2.30pm now and Little has to leave on the dot. Fortunately we’ve got through our seven taster-courses, washed down with one restrained glass of rosé, and she is ready to whirl out into a central London all aglitter with Christmas decorations.
Happy birthday, Tasmin, and here’s to the next half-century!
Tasmin Little and Martin Roscoe launch their recording of the complete Beethoven violin sonatas at the Wigmore Hall on 10 February. Box office: 020 7935 2141.
Tasmin Little and Jessica Duchen had lunch at L’Autre Pied, 5-7 Blandford Street, London W1U 3DB.
TASMIN LITTLE….IN PERSON
If you could only play the music of one composer from now on, which would you choose?
Brahms, because he wrote so beautifully for violin and because of the range of what he gave to the violin.
What would be your ideal violin, whether or not you’ve already played it?
I did once play an astonishing del Gesù – it was the most mouthwatering violin I’ve ever used.
If you could change three things in the set-up of the music profession or its training, what would you do?
- I would make funds available so that every single music student would go into every single primary and secondary school in the country, and they’d be paid to do so: it would be an opportunity for them to perform, and an opportunity for the pupils to see what quality playing can sound like. It would also remind students what it is to actually communicate directly with an audience.
- I would make sure that there were fantastic concert halls in every single town – of course I’d need unlimited funding for this! Each town would have its own concert hall that would be a real centre for the community and all the people would have free, open access.
- I’d scrap all fees for higher education.
What makes you happiest?
My beloved friends and family.
Do you think classical music needs to be saved?
I feel ambivalent about that, because it implies there’s something wrong with it and I don’t think there is. But clearly we’re not managing to get the message across to the people who make the decisions that music is an integral part of life. We need to find a way to change people’s perceptions of what classical music means and its place not just in society, but for us as human beings.
You’re Queen for a Day. What do you do with your power?