A belated review of ‘Out of Silence’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 March 2023 under Books, Reviews  •  Leave a comment

My 2010 book Out of Silence has received a decade-late review in American Record Guide – in the nicest possible way. Their reviewer Bruno Repp had written a long article about lesser-known piano music he thought readers would enjoy discovering. He ended with this item:

‘I would like to conclude by recommending a book. But a book is not music, so why include it here? Well, in a way, this one is. Susan Tomes is the distinguished Scottish chamber music pianist who formed the backbone of Domus and the Florestan Trio and has published six books. Her Out of Silence (Boydell, 2010) is the third and consists of short essays on a variety of topics related to her performance activities. They are thoughtful and modest but perspicacious.

Books by musicians tend to be of three kinds: anecdotes, technical advice and opinions about teaching and interpretation. Tomes is not opinionated; she is a seeker, not a finder. She writes about events and observations that have informed her artistic development. I feel her musicianship has also influenced the way she writes. Her perfectly composed essays are like Bagatelles, Impromptus and Intermezzos of creative writing – music through the eyes.’

American Record Guide, Sept/Oct 2021, reviewed by Bruno Repp

American Record Guide review of ‘The Piano – a History in 100 Pieces’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 6 March 2023 under Musings  •  Leave a comment

I have just been sent an American review of my book The Piano – a History in 100 Pieces. The review actually came out a year ago, but I was not aware of it until now.

A pity, as I would have liked to use a quote from it with the other quotes on the cover of the paperback version!

It’s a long review which describes the contents of the book in some detail. Here are some excerpts from the general remarks:

‘The Scottish pianist Susan Tomes, widely admired especially as a chamber musician, has emerged in recent years as a significant writer on musical topics. This is her sixth and largest book; I have read three of the earlier ones and enjoyed them greatly. They are thoughtful, engaging and brilliantly written, as is this new one.

‘..Each chapter on a classical piece consists of a general part followed by a specific part. The general parts are delightful and interesting. Tomes weaves her own thoughts as a performer into the fabric of historical facts, mentions little-known details, and recounts amusing anecdotes. … Tomes’s diplomatic way of handling opinion-laden topics such as the use of historic versus modern pianos in playing Haydn and Mozart is admirable. She rarely takes sides but simply presents the alternatives. Her even-handed and always positive ways of looking at things were also evident in her earlier books.

‘…The specific parts are descriptions of the music, similar to what one finds in the liner notes of recordings. Interspersed are various ideas from performance practice, and those are particularly interesting and useful. As for verbal descriptions of music …  Tomes’s text is as good as it gets, suffused with palpable love of music and thorough knowledge of the challenges it poses to the performer. Moreover, it is spiked with numerous felicitous expressions that stimulate the imagination, such as the pianist in Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto “playing the part of a silver-tongued poet”.’

American Record Guide, Jan/Feb 2022 issue, reviewed by Bruno Repp

Mozart piano and violin sonatas download

Posted by Susan Tomes on 3 March 2023 under Concerts, Reviews  •  4 Comments

This week I’ve been trying to find out what happened to the album of Mozart piano and violin sonatas that the wonderful Viennese violinist
Erich Höbarth and I made in 2012. (That’s us in the photo.) It was compiled from live recordings of a concert series we performed in Perth Concert Hall in Scotland. That series got five-star reviews, and we wanted to preserve a souvenir of it.

At the time, we were advised that CDs were fading and the smart choice would be to ‘go straight to download’. This was possible via CD Baby, an American company which offers a platform for musicians to upload their own music or performances.

BBC Radio 3’s respected ‘Record Review’ programme gave our download a very nice mention when it was first available. CD Baby shared it across multiple platforms. But it seemed our classical audience was not keen on ‘download only’. People kept asking us if a physical CD was available (it wasn’t). We struggled to know how to publicise our recording.

Recently I had a revealing conversation with an industry insider about algorithms and how they work to promote new recordings, with older ones being pushed gradually down the list, making them hard to stumble across. I realised what had happened with our Mozart recording from ten years ago. Publicity was clearly needed.

So here I am to give it a boost (or to ‘re-up’ it, as they say). First of all, here’s an excerpt on You Tube.

You can buy a single track, or any number of tracks up to the whole nine. You can get the recording on Amazon here, on Spotify here, on Apple Music here, and so on.

Here’s to a new lease of life for this lovely recording!

Channel 4’s ‘The Piano’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 27 February 2023 under Daily Life, Inspirations, Teaching  •  1 Comment

I’ve been watching Channel 4’s new series, ‘The Piano’, in which amateur piano-playing members of the public put themselves forward to come and play an upright piano in the foyer of one of Britain’s main railway stations.

Unknown to them, watching behind the scenes are two judges, the Chinese virtuoso Lang Lang and the singer-songwriter Mika, who comment (‘privately’, for viewers’ benefit) on their playing and select one person per episode to go forward to a concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall.

The cast of players is extremely varied – from people who taught themselves to play during lockdown, to classically trained people who’ve been playing for decades. They play in all styles, from boogie-woogie to their own meditative compositions, and from Chopin to rapping over their own piano playing. The standout so far is Lucy, an astonishing 13-year-old girl, blind and neuro-diverse, whose playing of a Chopin Nocturne had everyone spellbound.

It’s fascinating to see the different approaches, and the reactions of the public who happen across the filming as they make their way to their trains. The whole thing is a tribute to the piano’s ability to rise to every occasion.

In the foreword to my book The Piano – a History in 100 Pieces, published during semi-lockdown in 2021, I commented that the pandemic had given the piano a new prominence. Many people, stuck at home, turned to the piano, sometimes acquiring one for the first time in order to learn how to play it. The piano is perfect for such times because one person can play melody and harmony by themselves without needing other instrumentalists to complete the picture.

It’s remarkable how far some people have been able to get without traditional piano lessons. I admire them for being able to make the music they want despite technical limitations. At the same time, it’s tempting to shout at the screen, ‘Just give me a couple of hours with that person and they’d be playing more easily!’ Many pianists and piano teachers must, I imagine, be thinking the same thing.

Yet of course this isn’t the point. The point is the diversity, and the resourcefulness of the amateur pianists is a lovely thing to see.

‘Famously opaque world of classical music’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 20 January 2023 under Books, Musings, Reviews  •  5 Comments

The other day I read a review in The Guardian of a book, ‘In Good Hands’, by conductor Alice Farnham, about the art and craft of conducting. I haven’t read the book, but I was struck by several phrases the reviewer, Caroline Crampton, used when talking about classical music:

The conductor stands ‘with their back to us, dancing and waving their arms in a series of incomprehensible gestures’

…’this secretive profession’

…’the eccentric world of classical music’

…’the famously opaque world of classical music’

Naturally, as a musician, I don’t like to think that the world of classical music seems incomprehensible, eccentric, secretive, or famously opaque. I haven’t experienced it as any of those things – not even in the beginning, when I was starting to learn the piano. It seemed enticing and possible, a world opening out before me.

Yet I must accept that it can seem opaque to people not involved in it. What can be done? So many of my musical colleagues have been engaged in outreach work and educational concerts for years and years. They subsidise concert tickets for young people. They include children’s concerts in their own festivals. They teach local youngsters.

We are, however, battling against an educational ethos which doesn’t familiarise children with classical music as a matter of course. So it probably seems new and strange to young people when musicians come to their school to play them something, or when they are brought to a classical concert. If there is no follow-through by the educational establishment, the experience will likely remain a tantalising or perhaps merely a puzzling glimpse of something unfamiliar.

If an experienced book reviewer can refer to ‘the famously opaque world of classical music’, we need to do some serious thinking about how the opaque can be made clear and sparkling.