London Piano Festival

Posted by Susan Tomes on 20 September 2019 under Concerts, Musings, Travel  •  Leave a comment

I’m preparing for my two appearances at the London Piano Festival in King’s Place on Saturday October 5.  At 2pm I have a solo lecture-recital on Schubert’s A major Sonata D959. At 7pm I’ll be joining the other festival pianists in a ‘two-piano marathon‘ concert.

Most people think of piano duets as two players sitting cosily side by side at a single keyboard. That’s the most popular form of piano duets. But there are also many splendid works for two pianos, known as ‘duos’ to distinguish them from duets. Duos are less often encountered because of the rarity of finding two equally good pianos in the same rehearsal room, or on the same platform.

When there are two grand pianos on stage, you have to decide whether to have them opposite and nestling into one another, top-to-tail (the most space-saving solution), or side by side, which not all concert platforms can accommodate. If the pianos are nose-to-tail, your fellow pianist is quite a long way away from you. You can see their head bobbing about, but you cannot see their hands. Co-ordination is tricky. There’s only so much you can deduce from the other person’s head movements.

You might think that playing piano duets or duos would be easy for pianists, but it isn’t. Each note on the piano has a definite moment when the key goes down and the hammer strikes the string. Two pianists therefore have to co-ordinate their ‘attack’ very precisely, or the chords will sound ragged. As one doesn’t come across piano duos very often, one doesn’t have much chance to practise the art of synchronizing with another pianist. I’m much more used to playing chamber music with string or wind players. And when I do play with other pianists, it tends to be four hands at one keyboard.

So I am looking forward to plunging into the world of piano duos with Charles Owen and with Tim Horton at the London Piano Festival on October 5.

Feeling the tempo before you begin

Posted by Susan Tomes on 15 September 2019 under Inspirations, Teaching  •  1 Comment

I did a piano workshop recently at which a number of different people played. One of our topics was tempo. How do you decide at what speeed to play something, especially if the composer gives no indication? Even written instructions such as Andante or Adagio are largely evocative, leaving plenty of room for debate.

The simplest way to look at it, I think, is that tempo is indissolubly linked to character. If you first try to understand the character and mood of the piece, the tempo will often present itself to you as an obvious ingredient of the whole. This is a better way than that old chestnut of a method, identifying the most difficult bars in the piece and basing your tempo on the speed at which it’s possible to play those.

When watching those different pianists, I noticed that it was sometimes very difficult to guess what tempo a person was about to adopt, because they sat completely still until the moment they began to play.

With other pianists, their musical intention was evident before they had played a note. One could see a sort of preparatory wave travel up through their body as they mentally set in motion the tempo they wanted. Their arms and hands became subtly animated, as though they were conducting some inner music. Seeing this ‘wave’ helped to prepare the listeners as well, and when the pianist began to play, the tempo felt organic. Even if they had chosen a tempo which was not the one I myself would have taken, I found it was easy to be sympathetic to their choice, because I had seen them calling it into being.

Sitting at a window, doing nothing

Posted by Susan Tomes on 30 August 2019 under Musings, Travel  •  3 Comments

I’ve been on holiday in Italy and can feel that it has done me good. What can be more cheering than to start each day by opening the shutters to find a golden haze lying over the landscape (again), the hills receding in layers of paler and paler blue?

It was very hot. Amazing how difficult it is, if you live in a cool climate, to remember how it feels to be in a hot one. I had planned to do all sorts of enterprising walks, from hilltop village to hilltop village across the fields. But the heat drove away all thoughts of such exertion. How could I have thought it would be fun to walk for several hours in such temperatures?

Instead, I sat at a window in the hottest part of the day and looked out at the hills. It was quiet, except for the crickets making their leathery music. Everything seemed to be going slowly, including me. I was doing nothing, just gazing at the view, letting thoughts arise and depart. Yet afterwards, when it was cool enough to venture out, I felt better for having indulged in this period of stillness.

It’s not something I do very often at home, but perhaps I should.

The range of topics at the EdBookFest

Posted by Susan Tomes on 11 August 2019 under Books  •  Leave a comment

For the past couple of days I’ve been at the Edinburgh Book Festival  (one of the world’s major literary festivals) listening to other writers’ talks –  that is, when I could hear them over the noise of the thunder, lightning and rain battering on the canvas roof (in August).

Last night we were at a discussion about the future of humanitarianism. Experts from aid agencies were describing the stress of working under bombardment and in buildings with no electricity, when suddenly the lights went out in our tent. The panellists gamely continued in the dim glow of the emergency lighting. A moment later, there was a burst of noise outside – the fireworks which mark the end of the Tattoo at nearby Edinburgh Castle. The explosions of the fireworks in the sudden darkness made an evocative background for the tales.

I’ve been to talks about very big topics – racism, ecology; saving lives in war zones; the unfairness with which women have to contend. It’s easy to feel that one’s own topic, music, is small in comparison. How can I expect people to be interested in a talk about playing the piano when they could be learning about the plight of refugees or the threat to democracy?

Yet I know that music, and great art in general, plays an important role in helping people to make sense of their experiences. In a world boiling with challenges, most of us feel a need to create some space where we can digest and reflect upon our daily lives – and music can meet this need so wonderfully.

My talk at the BookFest is on Tuesday 13 August at 8.45pm.

NYO Dress Code – then and now

Posted by Susan Tomes on 4 August 2019 under Concerts, Daily Life  •  1 Comment

The marvellous National Youth Orchestra Prom concert with Nicola Benedetti last week has set me reminiscing about my time in the NYO (in the photo, I have long fair hair and am just to the left of the middle of the group, playing 2nd violin.)

Watching the NYO Prom on television, I realised that the dress code has relaxed. Today’s young women are clearly allowed to wear a variety of concert outfits – sleeveless, plunge necklines, and so on. But in my day, girls had to wear long-sleeved white ‘school blouses’, respectably buttoned, and dark skirts of a regulation length for concerts. The NYO had no truck with mini-skirts, then the height of fashion. If skirts were deemed by the ‘housemistresses’ to be too short, the hems were let down. I still remember the outrage of one glamorous mini-skirt owner (now an eminent professor) when she returned from a rehearsal to find one of her skirts lengthened.

Worst of all from my point of view was the rule on hair-washing. I was a teenager whose hair became greasy after just one day. At home, I washed it every day. Imagine my horror when the NYO  dictated that ‘you should wash your hair before coming to the course, because there will be no opportunity to wash it during the week.’

Disaster! I knew a week of greasy hair would ruin my life, so I became a guerrilla hair-washer, creeping out of the dorm after ‘lights out’ to wash my hair in the darkness of the communal washroom, then going to bed with wet hair to avoid making any noise. Occasionally a housemistress would find me and scold me, but usually by that time my hair was clean and I could face a telling-off.

Funnily enough, we accepted most of this as being just ‘how things were’. I absolutely loved being in the NYO. Apart from the memory of going to bed with wet hair, I have nothing but happy recollections of my time in the orchestra.