Photo: Paul Mitchell
Last week Tasmin Little, one of the UK's top violin soloists, announced that she has decided to 'hang up her concert gown' in 2020. Plenty to do, she says, but no more concerts. Here's the story from The Strad.
A flood of tributes has been pouring in and I'm adding to that. But I can't deny that here the news initially came as a shock. It so happens that Tasmin is one of my oldest and dearest friends. We're the same age and got to know each other when we were 17 - long before I had any notion I'd become a journalist. She is the first of our circle - possibly the first of any of my immediate 'peer group' - to hint at the word 'retire'. Not that she's said 'retire' as such - her website says that she will be 'ending her concert career' - but effectively this means retiring from the stage. It pulls one up short: whaddaya mean, 'retire'? We're only 17...aren't we? Heavens. Does time really go this fast?
Oh, yes. It does. And for any international classical soloist it goes faster still. A glance at a random selection of appropriate Twitter feeds will be enough to prove that musicians probably spend more time in airports than they do on the concert platform, that the matter of playing an instrument is highly physical, that the continual round of jet-lag, adrenaline and performance pressure demands great resilience in addition to evident talent.
I decided at the age of 23 to face the fact that I wasn't cut out for a piano career, and though I missed it at first, I've never doubted that stopping then was the right thing to do. Years on, I don't know how anyone does it at all.
I don't blame Tasmin one bit for wanting a change and I have the utmost respect for her decision, which can't have been easy. She is making the choice in a manner that is objective, in control and powered by self-knowledge. And I know she will excel at whatever she turns her hand to next - she has so much to give.
She is also in good company. My second-ever interviewee, when I was 21, was the great Italian violinist Gioconda de Vito. She was turning 80 and I went to talk to her for The Strad. She lived in Rickmansworth in a house surrounded by a beautiful garden full of birds and animals, and her husband translated for her since she had never learned to speak fluent English. She had retired in her fifties at the peak of her career. She played to the Pope. Then decided things couldn't get any better than that. She'd heard a late recital by the elderly Alfred Cortot, a car-crash full of wrong notes, and did not want to follow his example. So she stopped. I was intrigued: didn't she miss it? She didn't. At 21 I was incredulous. Several decades later, I understand it a lot better.
Tasmin has weathered everything magnificently, her zest for life and fun and music sparkling out of that Guadagnini, lighting up with joy and positivity every hall and every room she enters. She is one of the most extraordinarily consistent individuals I've been lucky enough to know: pure gold all the way through.
A lively interview from The Violin Channel
Tasmin and I met for the first time at a private recital by a mutual pianist friend at my (and the friend's) piano teacher's house. It was December 1983. I'd just done A levels, was having what was then called a 'year out' (the term 'gap yaar' was yet to be devised) and was learning to drive. Tasmin had reached the final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year the previous year; now she was fresh out of the Menuhin School, going to the Guildhall, and wanted driving lessons too. It turned out we lived near each other, so she called me the next day to ask for my driving teacher's number and to invite me round for supper.
I was enchanted by the Littles. Tasmin is from a gloriously theatrical family. Her father is the actor George Little, whose splendid performances I enjoyed very much - in particular the one-man show he wrote, Paradise Garden, about growing up during the war in Bradford, culminating with the revelation of local boy Frederick Delius's music on the radio... Charismatic, funny and warm, he was an irresistible presence and Tasmin learned much about public presentation from him, as well as how to turn pre-performance adrenaline to advantage. Jilly, her mother, is just as sunny, extrovert and full of good humour. They could scarcely have been more different from my own parents, who were quiet, academic and somewhat shy, tending to keep themselves to themselves, whether by accident or design.
Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending at the Proms in 1995, conducted by Andrew Davis
Living a longish tube ride from my school, I'd been friendly with a circle of girls from another part of the suburbs altogether and did too little socialising out of hours. But to find a friend down the road - well, that was a first. Even today, one of my favourite memories of Tasmin is the time, one afternoon not long after that, she invited me along to a masterclass at the Purcell Room in which she was playing to Michel Schwalbé, the leader of the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan. I was on the edge of my seat, soaking up all that was going on (he was quite a personality - that's another story). Afterwards we sloped off to unwind. We hopped on the Bakerloo Line to Piccadilly Circus, wandered through Chinatown and feasted royally on red bean buns. Afterwards we went back to my house, where my mum tried to give us a nice healthy supper, but could we eat? Er...
Over the years, friends sometimes vanish. New study environments, moves of house, demanding jobs, marriages, children and so forth, or simply growing apart - everything conspires against keeping in touch. But Tasmin never vanished. She went to study in Canada with Lorand Fenyves, but she always took the trouble to write letters. While I was away at university, she wrote letters (and anyway I wasn't too happy there and used to zip home whenever I could). If one has no kids (I haven't) it can be tricky keeping up with friends who do have them because often their other friends with children are prioritised, quite understandably so. That was never the case here. We followed each others' ups and downs over the years - and we both had plenty - even though life took us in very different directions. I basically sit at home with my husband and cats, writing. She travels the world with her violin, while also bringing up her two wonderful kids. I named the baby who arrives at the end of my first novel Rites of Spring after Tasmin's daughter.
Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata with Andrey Gugnin at the Sydney International Piano Competition. Andrey went on to win first prize.
I could fill this blog with memories of Tasmin. One that particularly stands out is the time I invited her to go busking at Waterloo as an experiment for The Independent, following Joshua Bell's example in Washington DC. That was an eye-opener for us both and sparked her idea to create the Naked Violin project - free access to a solo recording and plenty of information about it on the internet, which back then was groundbreaking, accompanied by a high quotient of outreach work in schools, shopping malls, oil rigs, homeless shelters and more.
Well before that, there was the time she played the Korngold Concerto in Manchester, about eight months pregnant. Later, Carnegie Hall with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic - Tom and I flew there to hear and cheer her and we all went for cocktails at the Rainbow Room. The Proms - lots of them, but especially the Ligeti Concerto with Rattle. I think that was the evening a mobile phone went off a few bars into The Rite of Spring and Rattle stopped and gave the audience a bit of a tirade about it. It's thanks to Tasmin that I got to know Roxanna Panufnik, Piers Lane and a whole galaxy of other marvellous people. And I'll always cherish the countless times we and our little group of friends who meet for lunch every few months have found ourselves falling off our chairs with laughter together, sometimes in rather nice restaurants, to everyone else's amusement.
Those memories will continue to build, but the sound of her playing, at least publicly, will soon have to rely on her recordings for preservation. Fortunately there are plenty of them, and the newest is coming out in February - recorded with the pianist John Lenehan, it's of music by fantastic composers who happen to have been women: Clara Schumann, Dame Ethel Smyth and Amy Beach (more info here from the Chandos website).
Here's a promotional video for it from Chandos: https://www.facebook.com/chandosrecords/videos/2495919247146924/?t=39
In the meantime, we still have a year and a half to enjoy the remaining concerts.
Brava bravissima, Tasmin - and more power to your elbow!