A piano in every Victorian home …

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 December 2017 under Books, Musings  •  Leave a comment

I’ve been reading ‘Tales and Travels of a School Inspector‘ by John Wilson, an account of travelling round the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in the Victorian era, in the years after the groundbreaking 1872 Education Act which gave every child between the ages of 5 and 10 the right to schooling. If the children concerned did not live near enough a school that one could reasonably require them to get there each day, then schooling had to come to them. Many little one- or two-room schools sprung up around Scotland, and inspectors were dispatched at intervals to check that education was being adequately delivered. To get to those schools the inspectors had to be resourceful, often travelling by cart, by boat, by horse, or wading through deep snow.  They often had to stay overnight in farmhouses and manses if there were no inns.

In the course of his work, John Wilson travelled to remote parts of Scotland including Orkney and Lewis. His recollections contain many startling vignettes of life in the last decades of the 19th century and the first of the 20th century.

For example, he writes of inspecting a tiny school ‘in an outlandish corner of a large island’ where the only schoolmistress was a young woman coping gallantly with an isolated geographical and social situation. After the inspector’s examination of her school pupils, ‘she invited me into her house, where she lived alone, for a cup of tea. This I was only too glad to accept… While I waited in the semi-furnished room, with not even the piano which one would have expected to find in such depressing circumstances, she busied herself in the kitchen, alternately whistling and singing.’

I was brought up short by the phrase, ‘with not even the piano which one would have expected to find in such depressing circumstances.‘ It seemed to suggest that a hundred years ago, even in the humble home of a rural schoolteacher, one would naturally have expected to see a piano. How times have changed!

Different attitudes to the artist’s mental processes

Posted by Susan Tomes on 27 November 2017 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  3 Comments

Today I was at a major exhibition, ‘Ages of Wonder – Scottish Art from 1540 to now‘ at the Royal Scottish Academy of Art in Edinburgh (it’s free, and very enjoyable).

As I went round, reading the plaques which explained the artworks, I was struck by how often they referred to ‘the artist’s practice’ and what fed into it … what working methods, new technology, which journeys, what personal travails had influenced particular works.

Taking this theme further, they had re-created an artist’s working studio, brought print-making equipment into the gallery, and shown us a life drawing class with unfinished pictures waiting on easels to be continued (I missed the hours when the artists were actually there). There was a historic video of Joseph Beuys taking a road trip across Scotland, the wobbly view from the car window evidently being considered worthy of record because of what it might reveal about the sights and sounds which impacted on his artistic imagination.

I tried to think whether there was anything quite comparable in my field, but couldn’t. This must be partly because many classical musicians don’t originate the music we play, so our relationship to ‘the work’ is less direct. Nevertheless we do tangle with the pieces we play for long periods before we perform them in public. We are, after all, bringing the music to life. But has anyone shown an interest in what I might have been reading or thinking about when learning this or that piece? Have they wanted to video my practice sessions so that they could produce a time-lapse collage of ‘developing ideas’? Wanted to re-create my practice room with exactly the right volumes of music piled up on the piano, to show what else I was working on at the time, and what brand of coffee was in that mug on the mantelpiece? Alas, no.

It often seems quite random how artforms have such different preoccupations. In the visual arts the artist’s mental processes are of deep significance. In the world of classical music, by contrast, we are taught to shut the door firmly on the studio and ensure that all our preparatory work is swept up and disposed of. Why so different, I wonder?

Herald review of Milngavie 75th anniversary concert

Posted by Susan Tomes on 13 November 2017 under Concerts, Reviews  •  Leave a comment

Four stars from The Herald today for my Glasgow concert with Jamie MacDougall and the Maxwell Quartet, marking the 75th anniversary of Milngavie Music Club with a very special programme:

‘To mark the club’s 75th birthday, current president Hugh Macdonald introduced a programme derived from a weekend in 1953 when Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and the Amadeus Quartet played Haydn, Schumann and Vaughan Williams. Back then I am sure that Milngavie would not have been able to look so close to home to find musicians of the calibre of pianist Susan Tomes, tenor Jamie MacDougall and the Maxwell Quartet – the latter hot-foot from winning the Trondheim International Chamber Music Competition. … Vaughan Williams’ song cycle ‘On Wenlock Edge’ was a first for both players and singer, although you would never have guessed it from the commanding performance.

‘…Schumann’s brilliant Piano Quintet from 1842 – by common consent the composer at the height of his powers – has just as eloquent a dialogue. Alongside the dynamic playing of Tomes, the beautiful tone of cellist Duncan Strachan had starring role here, on the journey to a Scherzo that is a delight just on its own and a a final Allegro that is as eloquent an expression of his creativity – and the inspiration of his wife, Clara – as the composer ever achieved.’

Chopin pops up in a jazz concert

Posted by Susan Tomes on 12 November 2017 under Concerts, Musings  •  1 Comment

Italian jazz pianist Rossano Sportiello was visiting Edinburgh from New York last night and I went to hear him. The jazz musicians in the audience ruefully acknowledged that Sportiello’s elegant appearance had put them to shame. Beautifully pressed grey suit, pink silk tie with matching silk handkerchief tucked in the jacket pocket, a gorgeous haircut … he looked like a wonderful Italian university professor.

After a first half consisting of improvisations based on ‘The Great American Songbook’, he opened the second half with some Duke Ellington, and then announced ‘Now I’d like to play some Chopin’. I imagined it would be an improvisation on a Chopin theme, but no: he played two wistful Mazurkas just as Chopin wrote them. I’m not sure I had ever heard classical pieces smoothly inserted into a jazz recital before, but it worked very well. All the preceding jazz served to focus our attention on Chopin’s way of leading a melodic line or a harmonic change as if it had only just occurred to him. I particularly enjoyed Sportiello’s way with the little ‘cadenzas’, passages of decoration usually printed in tiny notes to make it clear that they are an embellishment of the main line.

Often when teaching I have tried to explain that Chopin cannot have meant his decorative passages to sound wooden or stiff, no matter how intricate the fingering. They’re meant to sound like beautiful wisps of sound, prolonging a particular moment. But how rarely does one hear them played like that! Often they sound distressingly solid. When Rossano Sportiello played them, I realised that improvisation is the key. He made them sound effortless, turning them into delicate breaths of air. Chopin would have been pleased!

Folk song and the power of words

Posted by Susan Tomes on 1 November 2017 under Concerts, Musings  •  4 Comments

The other night I went to hear a great Irish folk band, Lankum, at the Traverse theatre bar. I first came across them in a BBC Alba television programme when they were called ‘Lynched’, a name they have understandably ditched. Their talent stuck in my head, so when I saw they were performing in Edinburgh I went along.

The performance was sold out and a large cheerful crowd of all ages, shapes and sizes was jostling for space around the bar tables. Whenever I find myself in crowds like this I always long to sweep them up and take them along to listen to my next concert, for it is so pleasant to be among such an audience.

To my ear, folk music tends to be repetitive from the musical point of view, but there are other fascinations. The words usually deal with hardship in some form or another – political, romantic, financial. ‘What will we do if we have no money? Oh true lovers, what will we do then?’, sang Radie Peat with a raw and lonely sadness that hushed the audience.

It struck me that the presence of words makes the message so clear. In the instrumental music I usually play, there is just as much emotion and searching for consolation, but it is not labelled. You have to be prepared to go looking for what’s in it, because nobody tells you beforehand that it’s about the rage of the prisoner or the sorrow of the abandoned lover. If you are the instrumentalist, you constantly have to ask yourself how to get the unspoken message across.

Not for the first time, I thought how helpful it would be if composers had given evocative titles to their pieces, or put words to their most important melodies. I know why they didn’t, but when I go to folk song performances I rather wish they had.