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Who were your heroes growing up?
My violin hero was this wonderful, indomitable violinist called Ida Haendel. She was a huge inspiration for me, partly because she was a female role model. Back then – I hesitate to say in the 16th century – but back then there were far fewer female violinists. That’s one of the things that has changed beyond measure in the last 40 years or so. It’s now a very balanced gender mix. One’s tempted to say that there are even more female violinists than males, and certainly a huge number of female soloists in the profession. Obviously Yehudi Menuhin was a hero too. So was Pinchas Zukerman. I did masterclasses with him, when I was 13 and 14 respectively, and he was just inspiring. A brilliant teacher and a lovely person to learn from.
You went to the Menuhin School. What memories do you have of your time there?
I started when I was eight years old and stayed for ten years. I went from a very large state primary school in London where there were 35 pupils in every class to a tiny school where the class size was three. When I started at Menuhin there were only 35 pupils in the entire school! What was really special was that everybody was completely connected by their love of music. It was a fantastic thing to be surrounded by other pupils who were so much better than I was – people like Nigel Kennedy, who was about 16 or 17 and was just playing brilliantly. It was pretty inspiring. It made me feel that if I worked very hard then I had an opportunity to become a very good player. We also did all of our academic work there, which made for a very long day.
So how exactly did the school operate?
We would start classes at seven o’clock – before breakfast – doing things like music dictation or quartet rehearsals and we wouldn’t finish until about half past six at night. Sometimes there’d be concerts after dinner: really great musicians would come and play, like Louis Kentner. It was a rigorous environment, always very busy. Menuhin came to visit about three times a year and he would hear each of us every time and chart our progress as we got older. We had our regular violin teachers, who would teach us twice a week, but he would come and give a masterclass and individual lessons to everybody, so that was very special. Whenever he’d come, we’d have roast chicken.
Piers Lane and Tasmin Little at the Sydney International Piano Competition of Australia
You’ve worked a lot with Piers Lane. How did your collaboration come about?
We’re celebrating 30 years of knowing each other this year! Piers is one of the most special human beings walking on the planet, not just because he plays piano like a god, but because of the kind of person he is. He’s just a gem – a completely lovely person. He and I have shared so many experiences travelling on tour together and we’ve shared an enormous amount of musical experiences. We are the very firmest, best and closest of friends.
We met on my 21st birthday. He and I had been doing the music club circuit in the UK. I had been travelling up and down the country and wherever I played, it seemed that the following concert was going to be Piers Lane. Wherever I went it was, “and next week ladies and gentlemen, Piers Lane is going to give a piano recital!” Wherever Piers went, they’d say, “Well last week we had Tasmin Little...”
On my birthday, a friend got us tickets to go to one of his concerts in London. He was playing with the cellist Alexander Baillie (with whom I actually collaborated two years ago in Townsville) and from the moment I heard Piers I thought, “Wow, this is such a special player, I really would love to play some music with him.” Piers tells the story far better than I do, but apparently at the end of the concert I bounded up to him and said, “Hello, my name’s Tasmin Little and I really want to play with you!” That’s exactly what happened and we’ve been playing together ever since.
So what will you be playing together in Townsville this year?
We’re going to play a fantastic sonata by the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski. It’s a very early work and it’s absolutely beautiful – very passionate and Romantic – quite unlike the style we’ve come to associate him with. It’s almost like Brahms in places and it’s got a beautiful slow movement. Another piece won’t be familiar to any audience anywhere because we’ve only just found it! It’s by William Lloyd Webber (father of Julian and Andrew), and it’s called The Gardens at Eastwell. It’s the final thing he wrote – a stunning three-minute gem. It’s completely mesmerising. Everybody’s going to come away humming it because it’s incredibly catchy. Julian Lloyd Webber sent it to me about a year ago and said, “I’ve just been clearing out some drawers at home and I have come across this and it’s never been played. You were the first person I thought of.” Piers and I were just deciding repertoire for our second recording of British Violin Sonatas on Chandos and we looked at each other and said, “We have to put this on our disc!”
What else are you looking forward to about the festival?
I’m looking forward to collaborating with the other fantastic artists. Piers always manages to get like-minded musicians, so I’m looking forward to meeting them and saying “hi” musically to everybody. I’m also looking forward to saying “hi, again” to the audience in Townsville. I think they deserve a special mention. They’ve got to be one of the warmest general publics that I’ve encountered anywhere in the world. They are so special and enthusiastic. It was my first time playing in the festival two years ago and within a nanosecond I felt this huge warmth and the audience’s complete support and enjoyment of the musical feast we were all enjoying.
And what about Townsville itself?
It’s a stunningly beautiful place. There’s a real feeling of community there – you feel it when you’re walking around the town. It’s an ideal place to be situated for ten days of music making because it’s not so big that it’s impersonal and it’s not so small that it’s claustrophobic. You’ve also got the beach and other activities. Last time I was so busy I didn’t even make it to Magnetic Island – can you believe that? My children are coming with me too so that’s absolutely number one on my list.
Tasmin Little at Classic FM Live 2012 © Richard Johnson
You’ve spoken of the pleasures, but does the festival come with any stresses?
It’s action-packed in terms of preparing and performing repertoire. The concerts are broadcast as well, so one’s super aware that everything has to be of the highest standard. Some of the people you’re working with you’ve never met before, so you’ve got to instantly develop a rapport. For me, one of the joys of performing is being spontaneous onstage. Not knowing the people you’re collaborating with can mean being spontaneous is quite a big ask. But audiences don’t want to hear dull and safe performances, they want to feel the electricity and energy onstage, and that only comes with feeling comfortable enough to let go of the need to control a performance.
One of the joys of making music with different people is that different personalities bring out different elements inside you. You become energised not just by the music but by the people you’re working with. That’s one of the special elements of a festival like Townsville. It’s not just the audiences that benefit from our music – we, the performers, come away having learned more about the music and more about ourselves.
You’re performing the Delius Violin Concerto with the Adelaide and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestras this year. When did you first come across Delius’s music?
My father always loved Delius' music, so I grew up with it as part of the wallpaper at home. As soon as I was able to play to a certain standard on the violin I wanted to play some of Delius' music. Then I realised that not very many people wanted to play it, so I went on a bit of a one-woman crusade. I've always been in favour of the underdog, providing the underdog is worth it – if I feel someone has been unfairly neglected I try to bring their music to people's attention. I haven't just done this with Delius, I've unearthed quite a few works of music that haven’t found their rightful place. And not just English music either, I have tried to spread a wide net. But obviously because I’m British, people often offer me British works because I've forged a reputation for being able to portray these works – well I hope I have anyway!
What attracts you to Delius’ work?
The funny thing about Delius' music is that people say you either love it or you hate it. I think the important thing is that it must be played with the same passion you would give to playing Brahms. It can be very ethereal music and sometimes I really enjoy the worldliness of the sound that you must try and achieve when you're playing his music – but not at the expense of the drama and passion that’s also inherent in his writing. I was drawn to his very unique harmonic language, which incorporates Romantic passion but also elements of African American plantation songs and folk songs. There's some English folk style, there's some blues harmonies, there's some French impressionism – because of course he lived in Paris for much of his life – there's a bit of Grieg and Norway (Grieg was a great friend of his). There’s a real blend of cultures and different harmonic styles that gives him a very unique musical personality. I think I was drawn to that because it's so intriguing. You can't place it half the time, it's just very ‘Delius’. He also loved Bach – fugues and counterpoint – so it's a weird and fantastic fusion of extraordinary variety.
In addition to Delius’ music, you’ve recorded music by a wide range of composers, both British and international. Is variety important to you?
Delius' music has been a fixture during my career, but I didn't want to develop a reputation for playing only this style of music, because it's incredibly important to me that I have a balance. It's important for me musically, because otherwise I think it’s a little bit like if you only used muscles on the right side of your body – the left side would begin to atrophy. So, for me, a balance in my musical experience is completely essential so I can continue to bring enough of what's important to my portrayal of Delius' music and British music. I've just released all of the Beethoven sonatas for piano and violin, with pianist Martin Roscoe, so that's my life-blood as well. This kind of repertoire is so crucial, for me, in order to continue to develop my musicality on every level. You never stop learning – I'm learning the whole time.