Ahead of his concerts with the LSO in November, performing the famous solo role in Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, we caught up with violist Antoine Tamestit to find out about his musical background and what he’s looking forward to about performing with the LSO and Valery Gergiev. Read on for the full interview, and visit lso.co.uk/berlioz to find out more about the series.
The LSO has a great tradition of playing Berlioz’s music, partly through their unforgettable work with Sir Colin Davis. In addition to their incredible knowledge of this repertoire, they are able to perform it with beautiful colours, because of the sound quality of their strings and solo wind players.
For these concerts I am sharing the stage with Maestro Gergiev for the first time, and I’m really looking forward to working with him. Because he is such a passionate musician and performer, I can only imagine that he will fit perfectly with Berlioz, who was so avant-garde as a man and a composer. It’s this combination of elements that I cannot wait to experience.
Do you like giving concerts in London?
Yes, definitely. London has such a great history of halls, concerts and classical musicians that it’s always special to perform here. What I particularly love is that it brings back memories from my own time as a BBC New Generation Artist, walking the streets of the city and discovering all of its concert halls, as well as its great cultural life.
Harold in Italy is one of the most well-known works for viola, and one of your signature pieces. What do you enjoy about performing it?
Harold in Italy is one of the masterpieces of the French Romantic period. But for violists, it is also one of the most important and special pieces; you could say that it is a kind of ‘must’ in our repertoire. I’ve been playing it for more than ten years and my interpretation has evolved enormously, especially through working with different orchestras and conductors.
But what always stays in my mind is that it is a truly theatrical piece, with a clear story. The solo viola’s role keeps changing: sometimes it’s the main character, sometimes it’s in conversation with the orchestra and sometimes it becomes a kind of commentator. I always feel the solo violist should become a real actor, ready to play different parts, and this is an aspect that I particularly relish.
Do you enjoy listening to Berlioz’s music? Do you have any favourite works?
Yes, I do very much. Of course the Symphonie fantastique is a masterpiece as well but I also love the depth of The Death of Cleopatra, the different worlds of Les nuits d’été, and L’Enfance du Christ, which remains a very special, intimate and touching piece for me.
You’re well known for your performances of contemporary viola repertoire. Does this require a different approach to playing something Romantic like Berlioz?
I actually don’t consider myself a specialist of any repertoire. I was brought up by parents who listened to all kinds of music, from the Baroque to the contemporary, as well as popular and traditional music. Because of this, from childhood there has always been a wonderful unity in my mind in the way I approach music. I may have to adjust my technique for particular repertoire, but I find that my thinking as an artist, strongly linked to emotions, is the same whatever the music.
When did you start playing music?
For my fifth birthday, I asked for a violin as a present from my parents. I was very inspired by my father and my aunt who were both violinists, but right away I found that playing music was fun and something that I loved coming back to. When I was about ten years old I developed a taste for the sounds of the lower strings, and the switch to the viola was both immediate and definitive. I was convinced that this was MY instrument and felt connected to it almost physically.
Are you inspired by any particular pieces, composers or performers?
I am always so deeply involved in the pieces that I’m working on that they, and their composers, become my favourite for a short period of time. Recently, as I recorded my latest CD of works by the German composer Paul Hindemith, I developed an even greater interest for the man and the historical context behind his compositions. But of course, Bach, Mozart and Schubert still continue to touch my heart in a very particular and personal way.
Other performers do inspire me very much, like the ones I play with regularly: Frank Peter Zimmermann, Leonidas Kavakos, Tabea Zimmermann, the Hagen Quartet, and also those that I dream of playing with, like Yo-Yo Ma, Renée Fleming or Daniel Barenboim … They give me ideas to think about, paths to try out, directions to follow, and inspiration to keep on working more and more.
How do you spend your time when you’re not performing?
At the moment, I am so busy that the little time I have left is spent teaching at the Paris Conservatoire, which is something I’m very passionate about. However, my greatest passion of all is spending time with my family which for me is one of the warmest and most inspiring of feelings.
Antoine Tamestit performs Berlioz’s Harold in Italy with the LSO on 1 and 12 November at the Barbican. Find out more about Gergiev’s Berlioz series at lso.co.uk/berlioz, or use the links below to view individual concerts and buy tickets.
Gergiev’s Berlioz: 31 October to 14 November, Barbican