One member of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is earning a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records this week.
Bassist Jane Little, 87, will set the world record for the longest professional tenure with a single orchestra.
Her career has spanned the whole history of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. She joined the group in 1945 when it was still a youth orchestra under maestro and educator Henry Sopkin. It turned professional in 1947, and Little finally got paid for the first time for her bass playing, a whopping $35 every other week.
“We played in the old city auditorium, the old barn, we called it,” Little said. “They had everything there, the circus, the ice shows, wrestling …We had to put up with a lot of Saturday morning rehearsals when they were taking the wrestling rink down from the night before and throwing beer bottles around.”
Little was married to the ASO’s principal flutist, Warren Little, for 41 years.
“He was this big six-foot-2 tall guy, who played a little flute, and he could carry my bass for me,” she said.
Before the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was a full-time orchestra, Little traveled across Georgia and its neighboring states to play with additional ensembles to make ends meet.
“The symphony was only 22 weeks out of the year when Sopkin was conducting, so what do you do the other 30 weeks?,” she said. “You go out and beat the bushes.”
Little played with various operas and orchestras in Atlanta; Macon; Columbus; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Augusta; Rome and Savannah. Little also said she had invested in some real estate, just in case the music wasn’t enough.
A permanent home
Little never wanted to leave the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
“From the time I got in, it was always getting better and better,” she said. “I mean when something is in your hometown and everything going up … I’d say we had the perfect situation.”
But when Robert Shaw took over the orchestra in 1967, he re-auditioned all of the members.
“My appointment with him was the day after Christmas, so I told my family, listen, Christmas is going to be on hold this year,” she said.
Little received an official contract and was appointed co-principal under Shaw.
With the orchestra, Little has accompanied some of the great soloists of the 20th and 21st centuries. One standout memory was when famed pianist Arthur Rubinstein was in town to perform a concert.
“He was getting ready to play and all of a sudden, the piano started sliding toward the front of the stage,” said Little. “And everyone was terrified … If that piano had fallen off the stage, it would have taken out a lot of people.”
One of the lights at the front of the stage stopped the piano, and the concert resumed.
An injury set her back from the season opener in September 2015, but when the assistant principal bass emeritus returns for this weekend’s concerts at Symphony Hall, she will begin her 71st season.
“It seems like 100 years,” Little said with a laugh. “It’s hard to remember when I didn’t play in the symphony.”