ATLANTA - On Monday, Jane Little got her weekly chemo shot. Thursday, she gulped down five green steroid pills and reported to Symphony Hall to fight her way back to the stage. And that she did, all 98 pounds of her, stroking a D chord at 8:04 p.m. to make her comeback official. The Atlanta Symphony bassist now held the world record for longest tenure with an orchestra.
“Seventy-one years ago,” Little sighed during intermission, overcome by emotion after a five-minute-long standing ovation. “It’s hard to remember when I wasn’t here.”
She was 16 and wearing a pastel evening gown when she made her debut on Feb. 4, 1945. That same Sunday, a long way from Atlanta, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill gathered to start the Yalta Conference.
Guinness does not list an official record for longest orchestra tenure, though that will change when the ASO sends documentation next week to have Little’s feat registered. The unofficial record had been held by Frances Darger, a violinist in the Utah Symphony who retired in 2012 after 70 years. Just over a handful of musicians played more than a half century, including New York Philharmonic clarinetist Stanley Drucker (60), Boston Symphony Orchestra violinist Rolland Tapley (58), and San Francisco Symphony flutist Paul Renzi (52).
Little’s quest is even more remarkable when you consider that she plays an instrument more than a foot taller than she is.
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“It’s just mind-boggling,” says Timothy Cobb, the principal bassist with the New York Philharmonic. “It takes a tremendous amount of physical power, frankly, and just brute force to play in a big orchestra. I have had friends who have made it into their 70s but to be pumping it out in the orchestra is really something.”
Little grew up in Atlanta during the Depression, her family too poor to afford a piano. But she loved music and was encouraged to try bass because, simply put, the orchestra at the Atlanta Girls High School didn’t need her to play clarinet, her first choice. She made her debut in 1945 with the Atlanta Youth Symphony, which became the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 1947.
Over the decades, Little has had her ups - performances with Igor Stravinsky and Arthur Rubinstein - and downs, none of them harder than the 2002 death of her husband, Warren Little, a longtime ASO flutist.
Little has also had a number of physical setbacks. She currently has multiple myeloma, a cancer that’s being managed with chemotherapy and pills. She’s broken her shoulder, elbow and pelvis over the years. Then, last August, Little was scrambling out the door to meet a friend for dinner, She slipped and fell and, despite muscling her way through an evening out, woke up the next morning unable to get out of bed. Little had to call an ambulance. She had cracked a vertebrae.
The pain is still there.
“It takes so much, to push those metal strings down against the fingerboard,” says Little. “When I first started practicing two months ago, I could only practice for two minutes because it hurt so bad.”
So this week, Little asked her doctor if she could take her steroid pills on Thursday, before the concert, instead of over the weekend, as is typical. He told her to go ahead.
Truth is, Little plans to retire after this season. She’s got a house in the North Carolina mountains and wants to spend more time there. It also feels like time. In the last two years, the gang that made up the bass section has changed dramatically. Tom Thoreson and Randy Ujcich retired. Doug Sommer and Ralph Jones died. Gloria, Jones’s widow, hurt her shoulder falling down the stairs. She’s still on the mend and watched Thursday while wearing a sling.
But Little always kept Darger’s record in mind.
“I’d thumb through the Guinness book and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat?’ A lot of people do crazy things like sitting on a flagpole for three days. I just kept on. It was just me and the lady in Utah. So finally, I said, ‘I’m going to do this.’ “
Thursday, Little played in a morning rehearsal and then had a Caesar salad at Table 1280, a restaurant in the same building. A worker wished her a happy birthday. (She had turned 87 on Tuesday.) Elizabeth Sims, after watching the open rehearsal, approached, apologized for bothering her, and then asked if Little could sign a program for her teenage grandson, Thomas, who also plays bass. Little smiled and scribbled her name.
After a few hours back home - and a stop at the mall, where she purchased a sheer, black blouse for the evening - Little arrived backstage. She was the first musician there and started warming up. She had forgotten her resin and borrowed it from the cheerful freelancer standing next to her, Max Vaclavik, whose beard, she noted, had been recently trimmed. “Before that,” Little cracked, “he looked like he was on ‘Duck Dynasty.’”
After a Brahms concerto and intermission, ASO executive director Jennifer Barlament walked on stage with Little and told the crowd of the historic moment. That’s when everybody stood and cheered and Little began to cry. She had regained her composure by the time ASO music director Robert Spano approached, backstage a few minutes later, to congratulate her.
It was only intermission and the orchestra was about to launch into “A Thousand Words,” an ambitious, driving world premiere by bassist Michael Kurth. Little smiled and didn’t make a move.
“I’m sitting this tune out,” she said.