Tasmin Little goes a long way
Violinist Tasmin Little is on a mission to bring classical music to the masses. As she prepares for the closing concert of the Belfast Festival tonight she tells Matthew McCreary of the inspiration behind her career
When it comes to performing in strange venues, Tasmin Little certainly knows a thing or two.
Everywhere from prisons to oil rigs, power stations to hospitals have provided a stage for the Englishwoman’s distinguished brand of violin playing.
But then Tasmin Little is not your average musician — her choice of performance space is part of a wider master plan of sorts, a desire to bring classical music to new audiences.
“I just love classical music so much myself and have witnessed the amazing power that music has on people,” she says.
“I have a burning desire to reach as many people as I possibly can, to remove the fear.”
It is this drive and ambition that have made her one of Britain's — and the world’s — top violinists, and which drove her signature project in 2008, the Naked Violin. By providing free CD downloads of her music on the internet, she gave people a no-strings-attached opportunity to give classical music a try.
“I did it because I have always felt that there are people ... who assume that classical music won't be anything they will enjoy,” she explains.
“I don't believe that, I believe that anyone has the possibility to enjoy classical music, that there isn't a single person who lives on this planet who doesn't enjoy some classical music.
“I provided audio introductions to the pieces, so that people could discover a little bit about |the music in the comfort of their own homes.”
The response to the project was massive, more even than Tasmin herself might have anticipated.
“Within a couple of weeks I had a quarter of a million hits on my website — that number is now about half a million,” she says.
“I had volumes and volumes of emails from people all over the world saying that they hadn't thought that classical music was going to be something that they were going to enjoy. But because there was a chance to try it for free they did, and they loved it and wanted to explore it further.”
Tasmin may not be the first classical musician to try and democratise the art but her mission to break down the barriers of snobbery has made her something of a standard bearer, to the extent that her Naked Violin project received plaudits and awards, and even featured on the South Bank Show. “I think that things are beginning to change slowly, that people are beginning |to feel more comfortable,” she says.
“I've seen a change since I started this project, and I do feel that people are gradually getting the message that classical music is just like any other kind of music — there isn't any hierarchy to it, you don't have to be a certain kind of person to enjoy it. I want to continue with that, and I hope that in Belfast I will have the opportunity to reach people who haven't yet experienced classical music.”
To this end she will be cramming three performances into her festival schedule within just |over 12 hours, including an evening of Polish music at the Ulster Hall, followed immediately by a rendition of the Naked Violin project at May Street Church.
She will also be performing a concert for children at the Elmwood Hall tomorrow morning. Even for a musician who has toured as extensively as Tasmin, it is a punishing schedule.
“It's a little more concentrated than I normally do!” she admits.
“I'm very used to doing concerts each night, but to do two concerts in one evening is quite something.”
Her championing of seldom-performed or rarely heard classical works, rather than crowd pleasers, has also given Tasmin a unique standing among the raft of popular classical artists who |increasingly inhabit the charts these days.
“In the Polish Passions concert at the Ulster Hall I'm doing one of the greatest violin concertos ever written, a wonderful soundscape from quite an impressionistic composer,” she says.
“We have a fantastic mixture of romantic orchestral colours as well as quite a folk element and quite a good beat. It works itself itself up into quite a lather; it's a really terrific piece!
“I really get fired up about playing pieces that don't often get the chance to be heard in the concert hall. I play 50 violin concertos, as well as over 100 other pieces for violin, so I have a huge repertoire. One of my passions is that there are so many pieces written for the violin and I love playing all of them. I want to play as many different kinds of piece as I can.”
Her passion for her art stemsfrom an early age, althoughher first forays into music were,by her own admission,“inauspicious”.
“I was ill with chicken poxwhen I was six, cooped up athome with my mum and driving her to distraction,” she recalls.
“I was getting terribly bored and hit on the idea of learning the recorder, which I taught myself in half an hour. I said to my mum I'd like to play another instrument, so when I was better I started piano lessons and then violin lessons. The moment I picked up the violin I just knew that that was my instrument. But my dad's an actor who was in many West End shows and musicals, so music was on in our house a lot.”
Although a mother now herself, and a much in demand performer, the difficulties of balancing work and life aren’t as much of a challenge as one might think, she says. “It’s a question of trying to make sure the holidays are free,” she says.
“I take a lot of time off in the summer and Christmas, but I sometimes travel with my children as well. All my preparation's done at home, though, so it's not like I go out to work every day!”
While obvious influences on her career include such violin maestros as Yehudi Menuhin, she believes that the motivation to be the best you can be in any field is something to admire. “It is inspiring when I see people in any walk of life who have worked hard to perfect whatever their craft is, whether a great footballer or chef,” she says.
“I can't help but be inspired by people who have a dream or a vision — I just want to be the best I can be. I've had a wonderful career so far and I hope it carries on for many years.
“I feel very lucky, because through the power of music I have been able to touch people's lives, to travel all over the world. I have seen that music is a common language, that it requires no verbal skills at all. It is about communicating on a much deeper level.”
Tickets for Tasmin Little’s festival concerts are available from www.belfastfestival.com or by calling 028 9097 1197