Antoine Tamestit: the Great Voice of the Viola

September 18, 2017, 10:40 AM · At age of 37, violist Antoine Tamestit is undoubtedly among the greatest musicians performing today. The beauty of the sounds he draws from his instrument is matched only by his humility and generosity in concert and as an educator.

Tamestit started by playing the violin. But after hearing the Bach Cello Suites around the age of nine, he expressed the desire to play a lower-pitched instrument. His teacher at the time also played the viola and introduced him to the instrument.

"I still had a child's mind," he said, "I had the impression of having two instruments for the price of one. With the viola, I found all I liked in the violin and all I liked in the cello."

Tamestit said he was in love with the viola from the very first moment. "The first time might not have sounded that good. Because I was small, I did not play well and I just put viola strings on my violin, which was probably a 3/4-size violin. Yet it was love at first sight, a thunderbolt that has never been extinguished. Today I do not see myself playing another instrument. I feel deeply a violist."

Antoine Tamestit
Antoine Tamestit. Photo by Julien Mignot.

For Tamestit, the low vibrations and harmonics of the viola are mesmerizing. He sensed those vibrations reverberated through his whole body. "I felt it from the moment I put the viola strings on my little violin," he said. "From the first time I played the C string, I had the impression of feeling it all the way down to my feet. Instead of just feeling the instrument vibrate as with the violin, I felt the viola vibrate through my whole body. The sense of playing it was corporeal, even carnal."

Tamestit was strongly influenced by his parents. Both were very fond of listening to music. And listening to music meant listening to all music: the Stabat Mater of Pergolesi; the Folks Songs of Luciano Berio; Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos; Mahler’s First Symphony; Ravel's Bolero and even French singers such as Claude Nougaro, Jacques Brel and Barbara.

"For me everything was part of a whole, a unit: the music in general," Tamestit said. "At a very young age hearing the music of my father, who was a violinist and composer, resulted in the fact that modern sounds, techniques and effects have never surprised me. To listen to all styles of music on an equal footing made me realize that music really has only one goal: to create emotion. And of course it is possible to express different emotions with different music."

The sound – its quality, intensity and beauty – is the most important element for Tamestit, in his work as a musician. The musician must achieve what he has in his mind, heart and imagination. For that to happen, he or she needs to spend time trying to understand how the transmission from the brain to the hand is effected. Inevitably, the musician will be required to go through various experimental steps.

"For me, any success, even if we speak of technical success, is ultimately a success of sound. That is to say, I have to attain the ideal sound in order to express the best of a passage. All work in music is directed towards the success of sound and its expression. Even if the passage is quick, even if it is virtuoso, one must understand the sound gesture, the sound effect and the sound space. I try to get closer every time."

Another aspect of the viola for which Tamestit is passionate is its similarity to voice. This is the focus of his most recent album, Bel Canto: The Voice of the Viola, a project that began with three works for viola by Henri Vieuxtemps: the Sonata op. 36, the Elegy and the Capriccio.

All three works were written in the Bel Canto style. Delving deeper, Tamestit found similar works, by more obscure composers who were nonetheless important in their time. These works were written in the mid-nineteenth century, a time during which a number of musicians defended the viola as an instrument on its own terms.

"It is amazing, in a couple of decades, several pieces were written for the viola as if the instrument was one of the great divas of the Bel Canto," Tamestit enthused. "I found this fact fascinating, both historically and musically."

Being a musician – giving concerts or not – requires a lifetime of work and evolution. A musician needs time. In this vein, it is interesting to note the views of the Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth, who composed two works for Tamestit. Intriguingly, one is entitled, "Weariness Heals Wounds." In a text accompanying the piece, Neuwirth wrote, somewhat surprisingly, that we need to understand that creativity happens only if there is boredom. Tamestit seconds that opinion; "I think this is correct, for children, for life, for education, for music. Often I need time. Even without playing, I will do a bit of technical exercise, I will sight read something to give me motivation, I will read a little about the composer or listen to music for five minutes before approaching the piece I have to work on."

For Tamestit, three things are fundamental to his musical evolution: personal work, stage experience and education.

"What you live on stage is very special," he said. "The very specific emotions of the experience help you to progress and develop in your personal work. Teaching has come to be an important parameter to my life, as well. Through and with the students, I push my understanding of each piece even further. Students help me discover hundreds of issues and questions about different pieces. This insight forces me to deepen and push my own reflection a little more."

From the moment he began to teach, Tamestit felt he was discovering something he needed. For him, every personality – even if not fully mature or developed in a student – has something positive, interesting, original and new. "Either we take inspiration from that, or we try to help the student to flourish in order to produce something convincing."

Tamestit offers masterclasses worldwide. "Masterclasses are moments that I love. Unique moments, timely and short, during which we have the chance to illuminate something about and in the student, which may trigger even more insight," he said. "To hear things differently, in a new way, can give fuller meaning to things that one has already heard ten or twenty times. To create or indeed recreate a pleasure, a desire or excitement in a student, I find very interesting."

When teaching, Tamestit asks many questions. By doing so, he tries to find out what the student expects of him and why the student plays music. "I often destabilize the students because I ask questions, while on the contrary, they expect me to give answers," he said. "It is by asking questions that we can create sparks. That is important. What the student wants is sometimes a thousand miles from what one is doing. Eventually, the student can get stuck and frustrated and hear nothing else."

"I realized it was more interesting to reach out to the student, to ask lots of questions and to know what relationship we are entering rather than applying the same method for all," he said." My teacher Jesse Levine once told me that what is most important at the end of life is not to have had all the answers, but if possible to have asked all the questions."

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September 18, 2017 at 08:01 PM · A painfully timely article! Tamestit is playing Harold in Italy with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra here in Brisbane this Saturday.... and I can't afford to go. (: (:

September 19, 2017 at 06:07 PM · Oh no! Any way to sneak in, Neil? Last-minute bargain seats?

September 19, 2017 at 08:47 PM · I'm hoping for that possibility and will look into it.

September 19, 2017 at 08:51 PM · I heard Tamestit play Schumann and Brahms last year. His sound was INCREDIBLE! I almost forgot all the viola jokes I had ever heard right there on the spot. I highly recommend if you get the chance.

September 20, 2017 at 10:24 AM · Such a nice player and man! I met him for some viola test driving some years ago, and had the opportunity to examine the "Mahler" Stradivari viola.

September 20, 2017 at 02:47 PM · What viola is he currently playing?

September 21, 2017 at 08:42 AM · I am very happy to hear about Antoine Tamestit's 'bel canto' approach for his viola playing and his free use of slides in order to produce different types and degrees of legato connections. I also very much enjoy to see him use 'dangerously high positions' on the d string for reasons of colouration!

These two still controversial aspects of artistry have been and are very important in my own playing and teaching.

I come from an earlier generation, studying in the early 1970's. Nobody can possibly imagine how many arguments I had with most of my teachers, just to be permitted to use the occasional 'modest' portamento in romantic music.

Obviously, times are changing for the better! Are we about to free ourselves from the 'emotional straightjacket', string players had to suffer since the post World War II era?

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