An interview with Antoine Tamestit

This October French viola virtuoso Antoine Tamestit is the star of the London Symphony Orchestra’s Artist Portrait series, performing music for viola and orchestra across three concerts at the Barbican. Alongside this, Tamestit appears in Antoine Tamestit & Friends a complementary BBC Radio 3 chamber music series where he is joined by a cast of his closest musical friends.

We caught up with Antoine to ask the burning questions about his journey to becoming a classical musician and why he chose the viola, his favourite repertoire and how he approaches introducing young people to classical music!

 How would you describe your journey to becoming a classical musician?

It all happened very naturally, as if it had already been written, although at the time it didn’t seem so obvious. There was never any pressure on me from my parents. But when I think back, I now realise that I have had many dreams and images of becoming a musician.

I was particularly struck as a youngster when my father, who is a violinist and a composer, showed me a video of great violinists playing concertos. One point in particular stuck in my mind from this video, during which the soloist was isolated and played a single held note, and everybody, the audience, orchestra, and conductor listened so intently to that one note, making it feel as if time was suspended. I was quite amazed at the heart wrenching emotion that was created. This really made an impact on me and drove me subconsciously in hoping that one day I too could with one sound make people hold their breath or be suspended in time and forget that they exist – like magic!

I started playing the violin when I was 5 years old, probably because of my father and my aunt, who is also a violin player. I asked for a violin for my birthday. It was my father who encouraged me to start, and he began to teach me how to play, not exactly lessons, but just playing around and having fun with the instrument. Then after about 6 months he asked me if I wanted to carry on playing and if I was enjoying doing so? He really did not want to force me as he had also given a violin to my brother and he ended up giving it back, so he didn’t want to make the same mistake again with me. But for me, it was an easy decision and told him that I wanted to carry on. I then went on to a teacher who was wonderful which I believe is so important. The first teacher you have must not damage anything to do with your enjoyment and pleasure for the instrument because you have to keep practicing every day.

 Why the viola? What made you realise ‘that’s my voice’?

When I reached 9 or 10, I asked my teacher if I could play lower strings, as I thought I wanted to play the cello. I had been listening to the Bach suites written for cello and I desperately wanted to play them. My teacher agreed and after a day of testing out the cello I decided that I didn’t feel comfortable because it would have meant starting again due to the positioning being so different. She then told me about an instrument that I could play the Bach suites on because it had the same tuning and that is exactly how I first approached the viola.

My father was a little worried about the job opportunities that I might have as a viola player but he never told me. I couldn’t see for myself the repertoire limits and what it meant to be a viola player, the role and the personality of a viola line. I only saw it as a bigger, lower violin and a small cello that I could play my Bach suites on. So, they put viola strings on my violin and that was it, from that moment I became a natural born viola player and I loved it! It was a natural change that I didn’t expect, however I have never looked back since.

 What are your key viola pieces, the ones that are core to your approach to the instrument, the ones you keep going back to?

There are actually a few pieces that are particularly key for me. First, it was the Bach Suites, then it was the Arpeggione Sonata, which I absolutely wanted to play but my teacher thought it was too difficult, so I approached it very slowly. But I love that piece - although it was not written for viola but more likely for a similar, older member of the viol family.

Then also, mainly from having listened to other people playing it, the Hindemith Sonatas, especially the incredibly famous fast movement. Hindemith really understood the viola and the techniques needed to bring out the best of its sound. Although his music isn’t always well understood it is nonetheless so well-written for the viola, he knew how to expand the sound of the instrument. This is a major work for me.

The first concerto I prepared, studied and then performed with an orchestra – that just stays with you – was the Walton. I still feel to this day that it is as difficult as it is wonderful. It’s very virtuosic and once again a piece that really understands the sound world, techniques and possibilities of the viola. I have always felt that this piece is my special concerto, not because I think that I play it particularly well, but emotionally it is close to my heart.

Then there are two contemporary pieces, the Ligeti Sonata and the Schnittke Concerto. They are both linked to important moments in my life: the Ligeti Sonata I studied with Tabea Zimmermann, who had premiered the piece– overall we worked on this piece for a period of eight to nine months together, so it really stayed with me, it is a piece I always want to programme. The Schnittke was the piece for the Munich competition. It is a remarkably successful and powerful piece, interestingly it is the very first piece I had to learn on my own. I had a short lesson with Yuri Bashmet and one with Tabea, but for the rest I really had to learn all by myself. At first, I felt quite lost, but I ended up putting so much of myself into it that it became such an important piece of my repertoire.

 Tell us about your relationship with the LSO.

In 2011 I worked with Antonio Pappano, who was recently appointed as chief conductor of the LSO from September 2024, on the Walton. The programme was Thomas Adès, then the Walton, then Elgar 1 – a very British programme. It was a little stressful, but I felt completely captivated when I performed it. I still remember seeing the LSO players out of the corner of my eye and noticing that they were not looking at their scores at all but looking at the conductor and at me. They knew the piece inside out. It was fantastic. I felt like I had dreamt of exactly this kind of sound for a while, and finally my dream was coming to fruition. I was completely swept away by the orchestra and hoped to play with them again.  

It was a year later that Kathryn McDowell, LSO Managing Director, suggested recording Berlioz’s Harold in Italy with Valery Gergiev. I really treasured recording with such a Berlioz-specialist orchestra and such a passionate conductor like Gergiev. The first performance was especially dramatic, there was a lot of theatre involved. That was when I completely fell in love with the LSO. It is such a sensitive orchestra; the wind section is so amazingly musical, and the strings have a very specific sound which I find to be very Western European. Not German or French, but you can feel the elegance of the silky bow strokes, so unique and I love that.

I next played the Bartók Concerto with François-Xavier Roth - I knew FXR so I felt very comfortable. We played twice in London and in Vienna. With the Bartók I was then able to see a whole other side to the orchestra, in Hungarian, folk-music repertoire. A very Eastern European, raw sound, especially with Roman Simovic who is a wonderful concert master. There was a true understanding of the music, and knowledge of improvisation. They asked for a particular rubato and playfulness which we really all loved playing around with. I felt so connected to Roman that we decided to play an impromptu encore of a Bartók duo, which was a great surprise for the audience!

In Vienna, I talked with Kathryn McDowell, and she was so generous and asked me what I’d like to do next. The result is this Artist Portrait!

The Jörg Widmann concerto has a special place for me because I’ve already done 22 or 23 performances of it, and a lot of those were with Daniel Harding. So this concert almost emerged from our history and we both knew that we wanted it to take place in London. There is so much theatre in the Widmann, I walk around a lot and a lot of people thought that the dramatic staging I adopted in Harold in Italy was inspired by the Widmann, but it is actually the opposite!

The Walton with Robin Ticciati was actually Kathryn’s idea. I’m glad to be playing the Walton again. In 2011, playing it with the LSO was scary in a way, I felt quite young. It will have been nearly 11 years, but I feel that in these past 11 years a lot of things have happened. It will be very interesting to go back to that piece with the LSO.  

In addition to these 3 concerts at the Barbican, you’ll be performing concerts at LSO St Luke’s.  

It was really important for me to have a thread between these chamber concerts and the orchestra concerts. I was really keen to get Jörg Widmann’s piece in one of those chamber music concerts because that’s actually how Jörg and I met and how our musical proximity was born. The chemistry we had when performing chamber music together was really the starting point of the writing of the concerto. I’m really keen for the audience to see what it means to breathe together as musicians on stage, what that can eventually bring to a written piece of music. The concerto really reflects what Jörg imagines of my personality, my sound. It even has my sense of humour. I’ll be playing his viola concerto in the Barbican, and we’ll be performing chamber music together in St Luke’s.

With Colin Currie, I will be performing Berio’s Naturale which is all based on Sicilian Folk Songs, and a brand new piece by Bethan Morgan-Williams.

How do you approach introducing younger people to classical music?  

I’ve always found that young people are naturally incredibly open to classical music. We should take as a given that they’re naturally open-minded and it’s all about how you present it to them.

The main way in which I particularly target the younger generation is through the viola festival in Japan called Viola Space. I have been programming director for the festival since 2013, and introduced certain activities for children such as workshops around Bach or Baroque music, tonalities and harmonies and how important they are in carrying so much meaning. We can use words to described tonalities, but we can also use colours. We all have a natural synesthesia, or at least I do. I really enjoy seeing the children create their own responses to the tonalities in Bach’s suites – without using any words and just asking them simply ‘what story comes to your mind when you listen to this?’ What the children produce completely on the spot is simply amazing. Every time I try this approach, even with a French song or German Lieder they completely grasp the story through their innate listening skills and curiosity. We have a responsibility to tap into that.

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 It is also important, especially for us musicians, to not elevate music above all other arts. When I was a child, the only ‘crime’ I committed was not showing an interest in anything else. I am a huge fan of the visual arts, one of my favourite painters is Pierre Soulages, his paintings are mostly all black, but they are so incredibly touching.

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(Pierre Soulages, Painting, 23 May 1953)

 It is important to be curious and open-minded towards creativity in general, even if this is all we encourage in children, we don’t have to worry about the future of classical music. It is in safe hands.


For further information on the full series of Antoine Tamestit's Artist Portrait concerts click here

 

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