By Inge Kjemtrup
To work closely with a composer on a concerto that’s tailor-made for your playing must be the dream of many performers. Yet there are some downsides, as violist Antoine Tamestit can attest from his experience with a viola concerto written for him by Jörg Widmann. “[Widmann] asked me to play all kinds of things,” Tamestit recalls. “He asked me to give him examples of contemporary pieces, but also Romantic and Classical pieces. Then he asked me for very specific things—like how do you do these harmonics, how can those sounds be made, and what about pizzicato?
“I had the bad idea of saying that I love pizzicato and I think composers don’t write enough of it. I have 12 pages of pizzicato in the beginning of the piece alone. I was so angry with myself!”
Vexing pizzicato or not, the resulting concerto is extraordinary, highlighting Tamestit’s amazing technical facility and the beautiful tone he draws from his 1672 “Gustav Mahler” Stradivari. The concerto also gives him a chance to demonstrate his theatrical skills as he moves from the front to the back of the stage as he plays, musically conversing with other members of the orchestra.
The 38-year-old French violist is at the top of his game. He’s a member of the relatively exclusive club of globe-trotting solo violists. His busy schedule includes a North American tour in October playing Harold in Italy with John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Orchestra. (The tour also marks his first appearance on the Carnegie Hall main stage.) This season he’s artist in residence in four places, including the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and Vienna’s Konzerthaus. His recording of the Widmann Concerto is due (at press time) for release in February by Harmonia Mundi, with whom he released an album of bel canto music in 2017. A new Bach album is on the horizon.
It sounds like a satisfying life and Tamestit is clearly savoring it.
He was born and grew up in Paris in a music-loving family that originally came from Nice, by way of North Africa. His father is a violinist, teacher, and composer (Tamestit has performed some of his music) while an aunt plays violin in the Orchestre de la Champs-Elysée, a period orchestra. At home, the family listened to music of “every style,” from Pergolesi to Mahler, Berio to French pop.
“I asked for a violin for my fifth birthday,” recalls Tamestit. “I think my father was a little afraid that he was subconsciously pushing something, so he said, ‘Are you sure?’ And I kept saying that I’m sure. He put me with a private teacher after about six months.”
Tamestit was ten when he switched to the viola, motivated by the prospect of playing the Bach cello suites on the instrument. “In my mind it was, can I play the Bach suites? And that was all I wanted,” he laughs. “We put viola strings on my little violin and as soon as they did this I said I never wanted to switch back. I love the C-string sound.”
His father worried that the switch to viola might affect his son’s opportunities as a professional musician. “I think he was happy that I proved him very wrong,” says Tamestit.
“We put viola strings on my little violin and as soon as they did this I said I never wanted to switch back. I love the C-string sound.”
When I ask Tamestit about his teachers, I soon understand that he’s given some thought to what each has given him. He credits an early teacher, Michel Michalakakos, with making him feel “comfortable” on the viola, in part by playing alongside him on a Gasparo da Salò viola. “You can imagine this huge sound next to my small viola. I kind of drowned in it, and it helped me to open up my bow, to vibrate more, to be very free.”
At the Paris Conservatory, he studied with Jean Sulem, with whom he focused on technique. Then, with Jesse Levine at Yale he began to enter and win competitions. Levine helped him learn how to pace himself to arrive in peak form at a concert and imparted “great ideas about sound, about the tone, also related to the left hand, to the vibrato, to the fingering.”
In 2001 Tamestit came to Tabea Zimmermann. With Zimmermann, he says, “it was more looking at what I was thinking about and what kind of ideas I could have, and then we could discuss them. And then either she would destroy them or she would help me to make them clearer or better.”
He recalls bringing her the Bartók concerto. “She listened to the first two pages and said I didn’t really need a lesson on it. She said, ‘I don’t just want to hear you; I want you to build up your ideas on it.’ We sat down for a few days with the manuscript and the different editions, and tried to understand the piece.”
Zimmermann also shared the stage with Tamestit and recorded George Benjamin’s Viola, Viola with him. Those performances were a way of learning too, he feels, helping him understand “the stage experience, what it means to be onstage, the nervousness you have onstage, how you deal with it, how you practice before, and how you can try to control your psychological decisions onstage.”
I ask him for some tips on stagecraft. “Basically, it’s analyzing what you are doing when performing, learning what you do when you are uncomfortable. I learned I was usually too quick, or too impulsive. It was good for the musical gestures but it usually had a bad effect on my sound or my intonation. So I practiced more on those aspects of my playing.
“Tabea always emphasized the way you stand onstage, because that can help how good a sound you produce and how healthy your technical capacities are.” Other tips? Well, enjoy yourself onstage and “keep your ears open at all times, for everything. So sometimes concentrating on outside things, whether it’s a pianist, or an orchestra, or a chamber-music partner, or even how the hall sounds makes you less self-conscious.”
During his time with Zimmermann, he won the Young Concert Artists audition in New York and the ARD International Music Competition in Munich, both of which brought him more concerts. Zimmermann then pointed him to a rare orchestral opportunity: the principal viola position in the Berlin Philharmonic, an orchestra he deeply admires. After two months of considering, he decided to stick to his chosen path of soloist.
Chamber music still plays a role in his career. He’s a founding member, with violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann and cellist Christian Poltéra, of the Trio Zimmermann, and he regularly performs with the likes of the Belcea and Quatuor Ebène string quartets.
He and Widmann, a first-class clarinetist, have been in a trio with pianist Francesco Piemontesi for several years. The three have, says Tamestit, a remarkable musical connection. “We can look at each other or just listen and listen to the breathing, and we already know how we think of the music.”
Tamestit told Widmann that this musical mind reading would lead to a great concerto—but the journey from the original commission in 2008 to its premiere was to prove a long one. “But every time we played together, we talked about certain aspects of playing on the viola, how it sounds here, how it sounds there, what you can do on that string with that bowing. We basically shaped the concerto together, little by little, in all styles of music.”
As Widmann’s composing began in earnest in 2015, Tamestit recalls, “We were talking on the phone all the time. He sent me one or two pages every day. I would ask him, what do you mean here? What do you want? And he would listen to me over the phone . . . and he would tell me if it was OK or not OK, and what he meant. This was an incredible luxury. If you can imagine if we could do that with Mozart—to ask what he meant here—it would make for other kinds of performances. I think that’s what this concerto is about. We did not write it together, he wrote it, but we worked on it together every step, every day.”
Even with that gem of a Strad viola, does Tamestit struggle to be heard about the orchestra in a piece that has him moving around the stage so much? “There are never problems of balance in this piece. The tapping on the chin rest in the beginning is surprisingly loud and I’m not tapping that strongly. He’s very good and careful about balance.”
Careful planning is also required for smaller stages and stages with steps. And then there’s the pizzicato. “I told him that after the 12 pages of pizzicato, you have to stop and make a new movement because I will need to tune.” Widmann ignored this suggestion. “So the tuning is written out, while there are things going on in the orchestra, so it’s very funny.
“And about every three concerts, I break a string in concert. It’s not so good—we have to start again!”
WHAT TAMESTIT PLAYS
Viola 1672 “Gustav Mahler” Stradivari, on loan from the Stradivari Stiftung Habisreutinger, Switzerland. “It’s just joy every day that I play it,” says Tamestit. “It’s an instrument that has so many different colors, that sings on every string, and that has a kind
of golden honey sound, like the color of the varnish of the back. It’s a glorious instrument that sounds as good in Jörg Widmann as it does in Bach, and that’s very surprising.”
Bows 1835 Nicholas Maire, and a modern copy of it by Lyon maker Sylvain Bigot. He also owns modern-made Baroque and Classical bows.
Strings Pirastro Passione gut strings for D, G and C, and steel for the A, sometimes alternating to a Larsen A. “Many people don’t use gut strings because of stability but I don’t think it’s that bad. Sometimes I try metal or synthetic strings, but I’ve found on this viola, the gut strings are richer and have more variety in colors. You can go down in dynamics and still find great colors and great focus.”