She keeps moving, bringing Delius with her

Tasmin Little, one of England's busiest violinists, plays a rare U.S. recital here Sunday.

Posted: January 26, 2012

LONDON - Musicians often have a passionate infatuation with the utopian lushness of Frederick Delius' music - and then move on.

The exception is one of England's busiest violinists, Tasmin Little. In her 70-concerto repertoire, her talisman is Delius, the composer she devoted herself to during a make-or-break period in her career, knowing full well that "break" was more likely than "make." Decades later, with a flourishing concert and recording life that took her to Singapore, Amsterdam and Dubai late last year, she's making a rare U.S. appearance with the Delius Society of Philadelphia at 3 p.m. Sunday.

One might question the wisdom of making a transatlantic flight just for a single recital in Philadelphia. It's not as if she has nothing else to do - when not playing concerts, she's taking her Guadagnini violin to prisons and factories in numerous outreach endeavors, and, as a 46-year-old divorced mother, is raising two daughters.

Nonetheless, Little seems quite unstoppable.

"It's a big year for Delius , and I want to play in Philadelphia again," she said. "It's definitely worth it."

She was last here in a 2003 tour stop with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Simon Rattle, playing the dense, modernistic Gyorgy Ligeti Violin Concerto. That music - along with the Wolfgang Rihm piece she recently performed in Amsterdam - couldn't be further from Delius, or so it seems. But the alternative logic she learned from close study of Delius - whose works such as "A Song Before Sunrise" have him pigeonholed as a British version of Debussy - put her in a place where she can apprehend pieces that depart from conventional thinking right down to their foundations.

Indeed, the composer taught her to look beyond musical surfaces, whether thorny (like Ligeti) or sparkling (like Delius).

"It's so hard to pinpoint his style, yet it's so definitely Delius," she said during a November interview at her home in the Ealing Common district of London. "You have to spend a really long time getting to know his musical personality." And the composer's hidden sex life is, for her, a key part of that. No wonder she's been controversial in Delius circles.

An animated woman with a smile that seems to cover much of her face, Little fell in love with the composer's Violin Concerto early on. And when she played it as a teenaged entry in the 1983 Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition, she knew that it wasn't flashy enough to win the top prize, no matter how well she did with it. She placed third.

"I suppose it didn't actually matter that I didn't win it. I got to play the work I really wanted to play. Later, I pushed for opportunities to play his music, and I think I was fairly surprised and excited by the results of that," she says. "I found a potential niche. If I had gone around playing more standard repertoire, it's arguable that I wouldn't have had the same attention that was given to me. I was too naive at the time to use that as any reason to play Delius. But that's actually what happened."

Sometimes she faced performances of the concerto with conductors who knew almost nothing about the composer. One of them was the formidable Kurt Masur.

"He said, 'I don't know this piece, and you'll have to teach it to me.' I was 21 years old or something like that. I was already excited and faintly terrified to work with this great maestro," she recalls. "But he was lovely. I gave him my thoughts and ideas, and he took it all on board . . . he did a beautiful job. But it's fair to say that I knew the piece better than he did."

Her scholarly work on the life of the composer uncovered what she believed to be a major missing piece of his psyche, and one many of her fellow Delians didn't want to know about. Part of the composer's picaresque life (1862-1934) - which ended with him wasting away from syphilis but still dictating major works from his bed - included running a plantation near Jacksonville, Fla., in the 1880s, funded by his industrialist father. There, Delius fell in love with an African American woman, and unbeknownst to him, fathered a child about whom he learned only when he returned to Florida 12 years later.

"He still had the plantation, and he took a trip to tidy up affairs. He wanted to see her and his child. She found out and ran away because she was afraid he was going to take the child away from her," says Little. "It was a point of huge emotional turmoil for him. His music changes markedly at this point in time. The mood of loss and regret that colors so much of his music, that all happened around this time [1897] . . . this yearning, this dying away that's found in so many of his works."

When published in the Delius Society Journal, her findings caused a considerable stir. However, those who knew Delius well - such as Eric Fenby, who wrote down many of the dictated late works - supported Little completely. Her Sunday recital at the German Society will illustrate the stark before-and-after. Little has long championed the composer's earliest violin sonata (written in 1892 but not published until 1975), which is full of what she calls "the joys of spring." Not so with the more emotionally complicated later Violin Sonata No. 2 (1923), also on the recital program.

The typically Delian amorphous prettiness won't be heard in her performances.

"People often use the word 'fantasy' with his music . . . but there's a great deal of structure in his large-scale works. But he doesn't make it so clear. The performer's job is to bring out the predominating line. And if you don't know where the line is, you have a less-successful performance," she says.

Still, Delius remains somewhat marginalized; Little fears the music always will be.

"I've been working very hard for 20 years, and it hasn't happened," she says. "I know people who have listened to his music quite a lot, and they say 'It's not for me,' " she says.

"Delius didn't write enough 'lollipop-style' music. It wasn't important to him. All he wanted to do is write music the way he felt it. The people who love his music really love his music. So when you get people to have a deep connection with his music, that will exceed everything else."


Tasmin Little recital:
3 p.m. Sunday at the German Society of Pennsylvania, 611 Spring Garden St. Tickets: $20. Information: 215-627-2332 or www.germansociety.org

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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