Tasmin Little – ebullient torch-carrier for excellence
Classical Music Editor Stuart Millson meets TASMIN LITTLE, O.B.E.
Just before Christmas, the Quarterly Review was very fortunate to meet one of our country’s foremost musical talents, the brilliant violinist, Tasmin Little. Known for her many recordings, recitals and concerts, this performer seems able to move between genres with great ease – the monumental Elgar Violin Concerto one day; caprices, concerti and reveries by Berlioz, Locatelli, Szymanowski or Ravel, the next. In fact, the QR was very lucky to have slotted into her busy schedule: just after our interview, the soloist was flying out to Dublin, for a concert at the country’s National Concert Hall.
I travelled over to suburban West London on a cold, but sunny morning for the interview, and was greeted at home by this ebullient musician as if I were an old friend – something which put me immediately at my ease; as being a non-musician myself, I was naturally anxious to avoid making too many technical mistakes. Coffee, and excellent coffee at that, was served, and I was able to strike a spark soon into the proceedings, as many years ago, when I lived in Gloucestershire, my neighbour next door-but-one – a retired lady who loved classical music – was actually one of my interviewee’s teachers. Soon, my questions, which I had written into a rigid 1-10 sort of structure, flowed into a general, and most illuminating discussion – a discussion which took us from the earliest influences in Tasmin’s musical career, to the whole matter of how a recording is actually undertaken.
Tasmin Little was born in 1965,
…into a household where classical music, and other types of music, too, were played. I can remember records of Locatelli – sparkling violin playing which switched me on to the violin and the virtuosic idea. Paganini’s violin works, and their quite different and muscular style showed me how the violin was capable of creating effects and astonishing sounds – the violin portraying different characters of itself. My father had a love of Delius, which in turn developed in me an attachment to the composer and other late-romantic English music.
So how and when did the musical career begin?
I started at a normal primary school, and before long my teacher strongly recommended that it was essential that I should attend a specialist music school. At the age of eight, I began at the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey. I developed a love of chamber music, and found that this gave me the essential ingredient for all music-making – listening. Music became for me a dialogue, a conversation, and this has informed my music philosophy: listening and collaboration.
It is, of course, a very difficult thing to try to describe the creative process, the strange element which gives noises made by musical instruments their spiritual and emotional value, but the violinist believes that “the intimacy of making music with someone” is part of that miraculous formula: a sense that musicians almost have an extra sense – a wavelength all of their own. I asked if, during these years, my interviewee attended concerts and gained a feel for the profession through such outings, but it was the Menuhin School – in itself – provided the spur, the foundation and the inspiration. “Life and work there was truly intensive,” Tasmin explained,
…but this period equipped me with the ability, later, to take flight as a soloist, which I did, as a direct result of participating in the Menuhin Competition, in which I won third prize. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra then offered me an engagement, as the First Prize-winner was unavailable! I was 18 years old – quite young to be given such an opportunity – and I appeared at St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, with Yehudi Menuhin conducting. I remember him as being extremely warm and friendly.
Tasmin’s next great step was a meeting with maestro, Kurt Masur (a conductor known for his work, especially in the romantic repertoire, with orchestras from Germany to New York). “I met Kurt Masur, and he gave me another early opportunity, this time to play with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in the Delius concerto.”
I asked if the career of a soloist could be a lonely experience, in the sense that a player (or indeed, conductor) might rush from one ensemble to another. “There are many friendly faces that you see and get to know,” replied Tasmin. “The life of an orchestra has to carry on, but it is not as lonely as you might think!”
One particular matter which has long preoccupied me is the question of how a recording actually made? I asked Tasmin: “Our readers would probably be quite keen to know how you, a conductor and an orchestra go about making a record. Do you, for example, sit down with – say – Sir Andrew Davis, and discuss a work over coffee? How much preparation is there?”
Tasmin’s answer (and she referred to her tremendous Elgar Violin Concerto recording on the Chandos label) surprised me.
Andrew Davis and I know each other, and we know – instinctively, professionally – what we are doing. We have each performed this work, possibly some 50 times, before recording it. I did the recording with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, which was a huge adventure for them, as they hadn’t actually played it for years. It felt like a new piece for many of the players. We didn’t know precisely the detail of what we wanted to do – Andrew might turn a corner, and we kept in step, the performance evolving rapidly, with a spontaneity, a bond. But we both know the work so well, and take details on board, and respond to the impetuousness of the writing. It is that detail which makes or breaks an Elgar performance. It is that sort of artistic collaboration that gives the very best possible outcome.
So do you, in a sense, walk into the studio or concert hall, and launch into a complete play-through?
We like to record in great chunks – a complete take. We then have a complete break and listen to what we have recorded, to see if we have attained the right sweep. The producer might well comment, and we might compare notes, and even do a different take if one small part needs correction. That is the beauty of modern recording. We did the Elgar [nearly an hour in length] in two sessions, two sessions of six hours. And we did a flying leap at it, the two sessions being like two magnets slotting together.
And what of acoustics? How much would the acoustic of a place influence your performance?
An acoustic with an other-worldiness, a dreamy, swimming sort of acoustic, now that is right for a large-scale work. Not so for a completely solo chamber work. Where we choose to record is driven by the repertoire.
Finally, I asked Tasmin what her views were on the place of music within our society.Are we doing enough as a country to promote classical music and the arts? I mentioned the situation in many state schools, where children have no exposure to great music – where children no longer sing together in school assemblies. And what of the ideas associated with “outreach”? Is classical music in danger of diluting itself, losing its mystery and ritual, in an attempt to become more accessible? Tasmin clearly believes in the absolute importance of music:
I have spoken to politicians, to a committee within Parliament, to the press, to everyone who will listen, to explain why the arts are vital. We have always celebrated individualism in this country, and this ability to be creative is brought out by education, music and arts. Our education system has often been the envy of the world, but I am very worried when we begin to take away options. If you don’t reach children at an early age – to find out what they are capable of, they will lose that learning potential. Music should be part of everybody’s life. Music is still all around us, but how can we keep up that level of musicality without injecting time and money into it? Scientific studies, and our own experience, show that music helps with the functioning of the brain. Music is good for our bodies and our emotions.
And the ideals associated with “outreach” need not be a dilution, says Tasmin, if prepared thoroughly, and without making concessions.
On my website, I have created my own outreach – three pieces of violin music, presented as “The Naked Violin”. I have made available pieces by Bach, Ysaye, and the modern British composer, Paul Patterson. Since I launched this facility, I have received about a quarter of a million contacts – people from all over the world, from China to Papua New Guinea, who had never considered listening to our buying a classical CD, but who have now been given an introduction to classical music. This exercise simply presented the music. I believe that this is the right way to achieve contact with a new audience. It doesn’t have to be diluted.
From a violinist who has some 70 or 80 works in her repertoire (a truly astonishing feat of memory and artistry) this education and listening project is indeed a gift – as are her many performances and commercial CDs. Meeting Tasmin Little made me realise that we should not be pessimistic about the future of the arts. Thanks to her energy, eloquence, elevating performances – and her deep commitment to education – the future of our musical life is surely safer than thought.