Stage collapse, death after 71 years in orchestra

Jane Little at the Atlanta Symphony Hall in February this year. Photo: Reuters/Dustin Chambers...
Jane Little at the Atlanta Symphony Hall in February this year. Photo: Reuters/Dustin Chambers/Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra bassist Jane Little collapsed during a performance and was rushed to the hospital, where she died, symphony spokeswoman Tammy Hawk said.

Little (87) held the Guinness World Record for having the longest tenure with a single orchestra.

She joined the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra -- the forerunner of the ASO -- at age 16, after studying bass in high school for two years, and played with the orchestra for 71 years.

"We can truly say that Jane Little was fortunate to do what she loved until the very end of her storied life and career," said Hawk, in a statement.

"The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was truly blessed to have Jane as part of our family for the past 71 years and we all miss her passion, vitality, spirit and incredible talent."

On Sunday (local time), the orchestra was at the very end of a pops concert, "Broadway's Golden Age," and were finishing an encore, the Irving Berlin tune "There's No Business Like Show Business," when Little collapsed.

"It was the last minute of the last piece on the program," said fellow bassist Michael Kurth. "Her bass crashed into my bass, she fell over on to the floor, and as quickly as we could we dropped our instruments and got her offstage."

A physician who is part of the ASO Chorus and a nurse from the audience worked to revive her, said Kurth. Little was transported to Grady Hospital, but died later that day.

Little was married to the symphony's principal flautist Warren Little for 41 years, until his death in 2002, and has performed under all four of the ensemble's music directors -- Henry Sopkin, Robert Shaw, Yoel Levi and Robert Spano, as well as guest conductors, including Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Pierre Monteux, Leopold Stokowski, Sir John Barbirolli and James Levine.

When the former Jane Findley joined the symphony she was only 4-foot-11 and weighed 98 pounds. When she later married Warren Little, she joked that she was glad her husband played such a diminutive instrument so that he could carry her bass for her.

In addition to her work with the symphony, she was principal bass with the Theater of the Stars Orchestra for 15 years, and played extensively with regional ballet and opera companies, as well as in touring performances of the American Ballet Theatre, Covent Garden Ballet, and Boris Goldovsky Opera Theatre. Twenty years ago this July, Little performed in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic opening and closing ceremonies with "Olympic Fanfare and Theme" composer/conductor John Williams.

"She was indestructible," said Kurth. "A couple of years ago during summer break, she broke her pelvis. We learned through the personnel manager that the doctor said she'd be out three or four months. But she was back in two weeks. She was made of steel."

Added Kurth, "I'm so blessed to have shared the stage with her. I could use words like 'remarkable' but there really aren't enough superlatives to describe her."

She achieved the Guinness record in February, despite health challenges.

The orchestra's application for Little's record is under review pending final approval.

- Tribune News Service 

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