The appeal of the Green Room

Posted by Susan Tomes on 19 September 2020 under Concerts, Inspirations, Travel  •  Leave a comment

On Monday, cellist Philip Higham and I played one of the first post-lockdown concerts for a socially distanced live audience at Wigmore Hall (see photo). At first, we had been told that only 56 people would be allowed in the audience, but the rules changed and we were able to have 120.

I knew they were going to spaced widely apart, but I hadn’t known they would all be wearing masks. Walking out on stage and seeing them all like that gave me quite a strange moment.

It’s strange to think that I have been playing in Wigmore Hall for over fifty years. ‘How can that be?’, I hear my gallant readers cry. Well, it’s because I first played there as a child in a national piano-playing competition. At that early age, the Wigmore was imprinted on my mind as the concert hall, the one that still floats up in my mind when an image of a concert hall is called for. It has been a favourite of mine for a long time.

Therefore it was extra-strange to play there under Covid19 restrictions. The audience had been asked to depart at the end without delay, and they did. For the first time ever, nobody came backstage to say ‘well done’ to us in the beautiful Green Room. Nobody at all. It was so different from the merry scene which usually reigns there. After a successful concert, there’s a queue of people stretching from the Green Room door down the stairs and into the auditorium. Gradually they make their way into the Green Room and a cheerful throng builds up. Under the influence of music, people say extraordinary things. This is one of my favourite parts of any concert, particularly at the Wigmore which has such dedicated listeners. I love to hear the things that people say about the music and the performance when everything is still fresh in their minds. Even if they simply stand there beaming, it’s welcome.

So the silence on Monday night was a shock. It made me think that I’m too dependent, perhaps, on getting feedback after a concert. I should know whether it was good, right? But it seems that, for me, feedback is an important counterpart to performance. It helps to offset the hundreds of hours in which I practised alone.

The concert was livestreamed and is still available, free, on the Wigmore website until 15 October. At the time of writing our performance has been viewed over 67,000 times on the hall’s Facebook page!

Although the Green Room was empty, I did get an astonishing number of written messages in the hours and days that followed – from colleagues, from friends but also from complete strangers who made the effort to find out how to contact me from the other side of the world. And one advantage of written messages is that you get to read them as many times as you like!

Playing at Wigmore Hall on 14 September

Posted by Susan Tomes on 11 September 2020 under Concerts, Inspirations, Travel  •  1 Comment

On Monday, 14 September at 7.30pm, cellist Philip Higham and I will be stepping in at short notice to play a duo recital at Wigmore Hall in London. We’re replacing two artists caught up in quarantine rules. With countries hopping on and off the quarantine list, the jigsaw of concerts planned for the autumn has become insanely complicated. One day, artists are scheduled to perform; the next they have to cancel, and it’s someone else’s turn.

It could happen to any of us at any time – as I realised yesterday when Scotland  tightened its coronavirus restrictions. In Scotland, concert halls and theatres have not re-opened. Yesterday they were told that they cannot re-open for another three weeks at least. The announcement of new rules was followed by a flurry of  emails from concert organisers telling people that the upcoming Scottish concerts, for which they had laid such careful plans, will now not take place.

Anyway, back to Wigmore Hall, which is in England. Their autumn season, which starts on Sunday, is a cautious and measured attempt to get live audiences back into the hall. In the initial phase, just 56 people will be allowed in, their tickets allocated by ballot. The concerts will be livestreamed, and the video will stay on the hall’s website for 30 days afterwards.

There have been many occasions in the past when I would have been desperately disappointed to walk out on stage there and see 56 people in the audience, but today that number seems like a luxury. I have not played to any live audiences since February!

The conditions made necessary by the pandemic will make it an unusual experience. For a start (and this is weighing on my mind) I will have to turn my own pages. Normally a page-turner sits beside me, but this is not permitted. All pianists know that in a recital programme there are dozens and dozens of page-turns for the pianist. At the bottom of each right-hand page, you usually have to miss a few notes while you turn the page with one hand (though good editions try to arrange the pages to help with that situation). I’m used to that in rehearsals, of course. But I don’t think I have ever had to turn my own pages in a concert, let alone one which is being recorded. Will people understand why I’m leaving out a few notes every couple of pages?

‘This would be the moment to switch to using an iPad’, I hear you say. It would! But I have never tried it, I don’t own an iPad, and time is too short to grapple with the technology. In any case, I’d be far too nervous about making a wrong move and finding that the pages don’t ‘turn’.

And: no interval, no guests, no backstage gatherings. No chance to rehearse or try the piano on stage until quite close to the concert, because of cleaning procedures. It will be so strange to end the concert and find no well-wishers streaming through that door into the Green Room (see photo). That’s always been a highlight of playing at Wigmore Hall – the loyalty and enthusiasm of the audiences.

Despite the unusual conditions, it’s exciting to be playing there. Travelling to London will be my first time on a train since March!

Doing a performance under Covid restrictions …

Posted by Susan Tomes on 16 August 2020 under Concerts, Musings  •  3 Comments

Since lockdown, I’ve only had the chance to do one concert. It was a special one, though! – the Edinburgh Festival’s Chamber Soundscapes online series. Although there was no audience, the performance took place under concert conditions.

In five months of lockdown, I haven’t been bothering to wear much make-up as I wasn’t going anywhere or meeting anyone. So when masks became mandatory in shops and so on, I wore a mask without problems. On the day of the concert, however, knowing that I’d be filmed, I put on concert make-up before I left the house.

As we were going to be in the city centre for over 5 hours, it wasn’t practical to take a car. I felt nervous about taking a taxi, so in the end I took a bus, hoping it would be empty. Wearing a mask on public transport is compulsory at the moment. I put on my mask, my face got warm, and after a few minutes I realised that my concert make-up was gently melting on the lower half of my face. When I got off the bus and removed the mask I found that my lipstick and a layer of foundation had transferred itself to the cotton. Aargh!

At the venue, the whole production team were wearing masks and standing well back. When they spoke from behind their masks at the back of the concert room, their voices were muffled.

The piano tuner was just finishing his work, and I went forward eagerly to try the piano. But he motioned me away: first the keyboard had to be disinfected.

Then there was the question of physical distancing between me and my chamber music partner, cellist Philip Higham. The festival team had a white stick measuring 2 metres, to ensure that we were following distancing guidelines. How to measure 2 metres between pianist and cellist? The team opted for an imaginary circle round each of us; the 2 metre stick went from the edge of one circle to the edge of the other. Measuring forehead to forehead would have allowed us to sit closer together, but that would have required the person doing the measuring to come closer than they were allowed to. With Philip sitting further away than usual, I found it harder to hear his cello when I was playing myself. That added a touch of stress to the proceedings.

And there was the matter of my page-turner. I had realised that it would be difficult to have a professional page turner, because they’d have to sit closer to me than is currently allowed. I didn’t relish the idea of a masked page-turner being captured forever on the video. Luckily, my husband offered to turn pages: he’s in my ‘social bubble’, so he didn’t need to wear a mask. But when we left the performing space, we had to put masks on before we went to our ‘green room’ or spoke with the production team.

Concert days always involve a long list of things to attend to, but these were new things. Masks, smudged make-up, muffled voices, disinfecting the keyboard, and my colleague’s cello which, from where I sat, seemed to have been turned down a notch in volume. Naturally everyone hopes these conditions are only temporary. If they’re going to last for a while, we’re all going to have to factor them in to our preparations for concert days.

Edinburgh Festival recording + YouTube broadcast

Posted by Susan Tomes on 11 August 2020 under Concerts  •  1 Comment

Yesterday Philip Higham and I recorded our programme for the Edinburgh International Festival’s Chamber Soundscapes series. Music by Nadia Boulanger, Martinu, Suk, Debussy and Beethoven.

Our performance was relayed through speakers in Princes St Gardens at lunchtime today (in the rain) and is now up on the Festival’s YouTube channel, where it will remain available for three months. Click here to go to the recording.

Rehearsing and performing under the new Covid-19 restrictions was a bit daunting (for example you’ll see in the photo that Philip is sitting further away from me than usual, to comply with the 2-metre rule), but it felt great to be playing chamber music after five months of not playing with anyone. Or to anyone for that matter. We were both struck by the onslaught of adrenaline!

Talking of adrenaline, I probably caused Philip to experience an extra jolt of it when I misremembered the order of pieces in the programme and launched boldly into the start of the Debussy Sonata when he was expecting to hear the dreamy beginning of the first piece by Boulanger. He had about 12 seconds to recover while I played the opening bars, but he joined in so smoothly that I had no idea anything was amiss. Afterwards, when I realised what had happened, I asked how he was able to react so quickly without scrambling to re-arrange the music on his stand. ‘I played the Debussy from memory’, he said. Definitely the coolest person in the festival.

To my ears, some of the intensity we felt yesterday at this chance to perform in mid-lockdown made its way into our performance.

Hooray, an actual engagement!

Posted by Susan Tomes on 5 August 2020 under Concerts  •  3 Comments

Believe it or not, I actually have a concert next week, though it will be a ‘closed door’ recording made without an audience. It’s part of the Edinburgh International Festival’s online offering which replaces the programme for this year’s cancelled Festival. A series of  performances by various artists will be filmed and recorded during August ‘as if live’, but without an audience, at The Hub in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.

Cellist Philip Higham and I will be recording an intriguing programme of music by Debussy,Beethoven, Martinu, Suk and Nadia Boulanger. It will be available in several ways during August: on August 11 the recording will be broadcast throughout Princes Street Gardens at lunchtime, through speakers hidden in the trees. I don’t think I’ve ever heard my own playing issuing from the trees, so I’m looking foward to this perhaps slightly surreal experience. As well as that, the filmed concert will be available on the Festival’s YouTube channel during August.

This is the one and only concert in my diary during the period of lockdown, everything else having been cancelled. It feels great to have something to practise for and look forward to. Even though there won’t be a live audience, there will be a small team of people looking after the sound and film aspects of the event, as well as the admin and backstage practicalities, and I’ll do what I always do in recordings: pretend that they are the audience and play to them.