Photo by Melanie Winning

It's A String Thing

25th November 2016

Octagon Music Society is delighted to welcome eminent violinist Tasmin Little to perform this weekend at the Clarendon Muse, Watford. Jill Glenn talks to her about music and motivation, risk and reward, and how she spends her spare time…

Internationally recognised as one of today’s leading classical violinists, the brilliantly effervescent Tasmin Little, 51, is at home in concert halls on every continent. She’s been awarded an OBE; is a Fellow of the Guildhall School of Music and an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music; has performed more than 20 times at the Proms – and has a string [see what I did there…] of acclaimed recordings to her name…

With a cv as eminent as this, and so many amazing opportunities at her fingertips, what, I ask, persuades her to perform at a provincial venue such as the Clarendon Muse. It may be acclaimed for its wonderful accoustics, but, with only 200 seats, isn’t it a bit… small?…

“Not at all,” she says, briskly. “As a performer, I really do enjoy varying the audience size, and having the opportunity to present different repertoire. And on an occasion like this, I talk about the pieces I’m playing, and people ask questions – sometimes there’s some really fantastic discussion.” She pauses for a moment, before adding, “The joy of a smaller venue is that direct personal connection. If I didn’t do this, I wouldn’t feel so sustained.”

The structure of this weekend’s performance originated in a project that Tasmin launched back in 2008: the Naked Violin, which was aimed at breaking down barriers to classical music. The idea was first conceived when she spent an unlikely afternoon busking, anonymously, under a railway bridge in London; she’d been invited to try it by The Independent, as a spontaneous response to violinist Joshua Bell’s experiment of busking incognito in Washington DC, and found it astonishingly liberating. The enthusiasm of passers-by, including children and disaffected teenagers, astonished her, and the experience ‘changed her life’.

She recorded three tracks for solo violin, and released them as a free download on her website: “a form of busking”, as she calls it. Within days 6,500 websites had linked to hers; within a few months, more than half a million people had downloaded the music. She determined to take live performance to those who wouldn’t otherwise access it. She played in schools and hospitals and shopping centres and prisons, changing other people’s lives as well as her own.

Now she incorporates performances celebrating ‘a single, unadorned violin’ into her diary on a regular basis, although choosing the music for a recital like this obviously brings its challenges. There’s a more limited range for the solo violin; not every composer wrote for the instrument in this format. “But I aim to show the breadth of repertoire and style that is available,” she explains. Audiences are generally amazed at what’s on offer. “Lots of people comment that they hadn’t realised that the violin was capable of such different sounds.”

She doesn’t, sadly, go out and busk any more. “I haven’t for a while. It’s not good for the instrument [a 1757 Giovanni Battista Guadagnini violin],” she explains, adding, though, that a Naked Violin recital is “the next best thing to busking”. She is, of course, pretty much on her own out there, although she shrugs that off. “There’s always the possibility of a memory slip, but that’s the risk one takes. Anyway, I like to think no-one would notice…”

Her favourite piece of the repertoire she’ll be playing on Sunday, which ranges from Bach and Telemann to Albeniz, Ysaye and Paul Patterson, is the Albeniz. “It’s originally for piano, and more familiar in an arrangement for guitar. I have the guitar in mind as I play it… it emulates the flamenco style, and it’s a really colourful piece.”

It’s a naïve question, perhaps (she laughs a rich, enthusiastic laugh when I say this) but I can’t resist asking for her all-time favourite piece of music. “If you put a gun to my head,” she muses, “I’d
have to say Daphnis and Chloé, Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé. I do love it.” Indeed she does; it was her one-to-be-saved-from-the-waves when she appeared on Desert Island Discs, back in 2001. Her luxury, for those who like to know these things, was an endless supply of coffee.

For pleasure, she’ll listen to “all sorts of music… jazz, flamenco and Spanish guitar, golden oldies, modern stuff”, although it’s not a regular pursuit. In fact, oddly, she doesn’t even own an iPod. But then; she doesn’t really need one. “I really appreciate the value of silence,” she explains. “And I always have music in my head… I’m always thinking about about music, pieces I’m working on, how to perform different passages.”

She declares herself not at all ruled by technology; as well as preferring cds to downloads, she also favours physical books. For Tasmin, it’s all about the real experience. Always has been; always will be.

Her teenage children who go to the Grammar Schools in Watford, are naturally musical; both play the piano, while her son is also a clarinettist and her daughter a flautist. Do they play together as a family, I ask, envisaging lively trios and duets in classical style. “Sometimes, yes,” she agrees. “And we sing a lot, and play around with music. Yesterday we made up a Bach-style cantata around ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’. We even had some recitative…”

If that ever makes its way onto her website as a free download, remember, you read about it here first.

Tasmin Little is giving a Naked Violin recital for Octagon Music Society on Sunday 27 November at 4pm at The Muse, 70 Rickmansworth Road, Watford. Tickets are £15 (free for those under the age of 26, courtesy of the Cavatina Chamber Music Trust) • 01923 231917 or octagonmusic.ticketsource.co.uk

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