Piano tuning on the horizon

Posted by Susan Tomes on 14 April 2021 under Daily Life, Musings  •  1 Comment

My poor old piano has not been tuned for almost a year because of the lockdown.

As the tuning became less delightful, I have practised ‘mind over matter’  – a kind of ‘fingers in ears, la la la! I don’t hear anything wrong’ approach. In fact, my piano has held up remarkably well, but the sourness in certain notes is starting to gnaw at my concentration. ‘Non-essential businesses’ are due to open here on April 26, so perhaps it’s simply that I’m allowing myself to notice the tuning more, now that there is a chance of remedy on the horizon.

I’ve always thought it’s silly that pianists are not able to tune their own instruments, and have to pay professional tuners to do it for them. Of course, piano tuning is an art and a skill learned through extensive training. Tuning a piano properly can take several hours. All the same, it seems crazy that pianists don’t have basic tuning in their skillset.

Most musicians can tune their instruments themselves. On many instruments you can also alter the tuning by adjusting where you put your fingers on the strings, by changing the tension of your lips on a wind instrument, and so on. But a pianist is stuck with whatever state the piano is in.

A year of lockdown has focused my mind on our helplessness in this regard. This lockdown has already gone on much longer than any of us imagined. What if there are more lockdowns? If I were responsible for the piano curriculum at a music college, I would probably start to think about adding some basic tuning skills, so that pianists could do first aid on their pianos while waiting for the experts to be allowed in.

The street is just the street … as time goes by

Posted by Susan Tomes on 4 April 2021 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  1 Comment

A year ago, when lockdown happened and all my work was cancelled, I spent a lot of time walking around the streets of my neighbourhood – partly for exercise, partly to pass the time, and partly because we were not supposed to be taking the bus so there was no other way to get to the few shops that were open.

A year later, I was invited to do a streamed concert, to be rehearsed in a venue not far from where I live. What a treat! I prepared on my own for the rehearsals, and on the appointed day I walked to the hall.

I had been walking up the road almost daily for the whole of the past year, but suddenly it felt different. My perception of the scene and my place in it had subtly altered. Now I was going somewhere because I had been summoned to do something I loved, something I was good at. People were waiting for me, specifically me. I would be amongst kindred spirits. We were going to try to create something beautiful. I had a purpose beyond going for groceries!

Somehow this sense of purpose altered my perception. It’s hard to put into words, but it was something to do with the balance of elements in the scene. During lockdown, the empty street was the major player in the drama. Its emptiness and quietness were powerful. I was just a beetle moving along the street. On the day I went out cheerfully to rehearse, I was a major player in the scene (or so it felt to me). The street looked down on me indulgently as I passed.

This is the kind of thing which can quickly become pretentious, so I’ll stop there. But I did reflect on it afterwards. The change I felt was no doubt the effect of adrenaline – a regular part of my professional life before the pandemic.

And indeed, when those few days of music-making were over, the adrenaline disappeared. The street was once more in the foreground.
‘You must remember this/ A kiss is just a kiss/ A sigh is just a sigh/ The fundamental things apply/ As time goes by.’

Felix Wurman’s 1982 video about Domus

Posted by Susan Tomes on 26 March 2021 under Books, Concerts, Inspirations, Travel  •  2 Comments

This week I came across the video made by cellist Felix Wurman about  Domus at the beginning of the group’s career.

We were trying to publicise our concerts in our portable concert hall, a large geodesic dome which the players assembled out of aluminium tubes, putting it up and taking it down in each place (more on this tale in Beyond the Notes).

In those days it wasn’t standard practice for classical music groups to make videos. Felix was from Chicago and – along with his natural drive – he brought an enterprising American spirit to everything he did. We would probably never have thought of making a film, but Felix decided we needed one, and he set about making it.

I wasn’t much in favour of making the video, because it took up a lot of time, and let’s face it, I wasn’t media-savvy enough to see the point of it. We had been advised by one of our mentors that we were in danger of frittering away our energies in peripheral activities, all too easy to do when we had so many non-musical things to attend to. We were to remember our core mission: to become a world-class chamber group, known for our playing rather than primarily for our portable concert hall. I took the advice to heart and was in the mood to rehearse. Making the video felt like a distraction that summer.

But now, as well as being 23 minutes of deep nostalgia for those involved, it feels like a historical document.  Felix is sadly no longer with us, but his family has put the Domus video on YouTube.

Reviews of SCO piano quartets/streaming

Posted by Susan Tomes on 21 March 2021 under Concerts, Reviews  •  1 Comment

Susan Tomes © Scottish Chamber Orchestra

In the past year there have been almost no live concerts, and therefore no reviews of the traditional kind.

But sometimes there are reviews of streamed concerts, and the piano quartets I performed earlier this month with the excellent Scottish Chamber Orchestra principal players Maria Wloszczowska, Felix Tanner and Philip Higham (the concert is still free to watch here) have had two online reviews. One is from Vox Carnyx, Scotland’s new classical music website, and the other is from the long-running Bachtrack.

I can’t resist quoting this from Bachtrack:

‘Tomes grips the eye as well as the ear, for she has mastered the art of throwaway perfectionism in music that’s in her blood. Relaxed and authoritative at the keyboard, the alchemistic Scot spun black printed dots into gold as what appeared to be an idle flick of the wrist or a casual finger-twiddle became a perfectly formed moment of virtuosity. The weighting of her left hand in the first movement of K478, the earlier of Mozart’s two essays in the form, was even more delicious than her elegant right-hand acrobatics. It’s only a short leap from this repertoire to the piano concertos – indeed, Mozart’s Allegro moderato finale is fully formed as a concertante movement with bright cadenza flourishes and thickly textured piano writing – and it found Tomes at her most commanding.’

The review in full: https://bachtrack.com/review-video-tomes-scottish-chamber-orchestra-mozart-faure-edinburgh-march-2021

Normally one is advised not to pay too much attention to reviews, but after such a bleak year for performers, words of appreciation feel like water in the desert.

What would Mozart make of our spaced-out concert formations?

Posted by Susan Tomes on 15 March 2021 under Concerts, Inspirations, Musings, Travel  •  Leave a comment

Yesterday I was in Perth, recording Mozart and Beethoven quintets for piano and wind instruments with principal players of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra – Adrian Wilson, Timothy Orpen, David Hubbard and Chris Gough. The performance will be relayed as a Radio 3 lunchtime concert on April 9 at 1pm.

We conformed to Covid restrictions and sat 2 metres apart from one another. The distance across the group felt quite far (see photo). And we were only five people – imagine what the distances are like with a full orchestra!

In the few recordings I’ve been able to do during lockdown, I’ve found that when it’s harder to hear, I rely more on visual information. There’s always a blend of aural and visual information in music-making, but I suspect the balance has changed during the era of social distancing.

We were wondering what Mozart would have said if he could have seen us spread out across the stage. (Something rude, probably: ‘Do you all smell? Hee-hee!’) At first we wondered whether he might have lived through times of illness when the Viennese stayed apart to avoid infecting one another.. But then we remembered that in the 18th century, the understanding of disease was very different. If I remember correctly, it was not yet known how infection spread, and there was little appreciation of the need for public health measures as we know them today.

Pictures of chamber music gatherings in Mozart’s day show the players crowded together, sharing music stands, sometimes using double stands (like a sandwich-board on a stand) so that one person could sit on each side. They made best use of candlelight by putting stands as close together as possible. String players might stand right beside the pianist, reading the string part from the piano score. After a year in lockdown, those 18th century images of jolly music-making provoke a sharp intake of breath from the Covid-era viewer: ‘Why on earth are they so close together?’

So I don’t think Mozart would have enjoyed our currently spaced-out formations – although they might have given him ideas. It’s an intriguing thought – if Mozart thought that the musicians might not be able to hear the fine detail of one another’s playing, would he have composed different music?