Next Thursday at Glasgow University

Posted by Susan Tomes on 23 October 2015 under Concerts, Musings  •  2 Comments

I’ve been looking forward to performing Beethoven’s song cycle ‘An die ferne Geliebte’ with tenor Jamie MacDougall next week at Glasgow University’s lunchtime concert series. Admission to this popular series is free by the way!

Unfortunately Jamie has had to pull out of next week’s concert, so at short notice I’ll be converting it into a lecture-recital about Beethoven’s opus 109 piano sonata. I was going to play it anyway, as part of the programme, but now I’m going to speak about it as well. Come along on Thursday 29th at 1.10pm if you can.

I’ve done a lecture-recital about this sonata a couple of times recently, but each time it has come out differently, according to the size of venue and the type of audience. I suppose it is no surprise that, in an intimate venue where the front row of the audience is practically knee to knee with me when I turn to speak, and I can see their facial expressions, it feels appropriate to speak about some of the more inward aspects of the music. In a larger venue where the audience’s faces are distant and dimly lit, you find yourself speaking more about history and context.

I did one talk in a very large venue where I realised I’d need a microphone. It was my first experience of the so-called ‘Madonna’ headset, hooked around the ears like a pair of reversed spectacles with the connecting wire running around the back of the head. A fine wire with a microphone on the end of it curls forward, around the wearer’s right cheek. I felt very self-conscious, especially when playing the piano, in profile to the audience.

I said to one of the stage technicians that it made me feel like a pop musician. He replied kindly that it must be quite a fun experience for me to feel like a pop star for a few minutes. In fact, it was fun, not because I felt like a pop star (a few things would have to change before that transformation could occur) but because it was my first experience of being able to turn my head any way I liked without losing contact with the microphone (with a ‘lapel mic’ or a handheld mic there’s always this danger).

Once I’d got over the odd feeling of the headset, and the startling sensation of hearing my own voice booming out over the faraway speakers, it was quite relaxing to be able to speak at whatever level I wanted. And the invisibility of the ‘Madonna’ headset was proven when a member of the audience said to me afterwards, ‘I could hear every word you said extremely clearly, and yet you weren’t even using a microphone. Bravo!’

‘The other classical musics’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 October 2015 under Books, Musings  •  1 Comment

Yesterday’s Guardian Review carried a fascinating article by Michael Church, editor of ‘The other classical musics – fifteen great traditions’, a new assortment of essays by Church and other world music experts published by Boydell Press (who also publish my books). As well as describing great musical traditions, Church points out that because of changing geo-political realities, many of those traditions are endangered, or are even being driven out of existence.

Many parts of the world have their own ‘classical musics’ which owe their existence to a combination of supporting circumstances – “classical music will typically evolve in a stable society where a wealthy class of connoisseurs has sponsored its creation by professionals. It will have had the time and space to develop rules of composition and performance, and to allow the evolution of a canon of works, or forms”, Michael Church writes.

He refers to the belief that there is a ‘religious’ element to this type of music, its composers, performers and listeners seeking to be in touch with higher forces. “The image of music coming down from the gods, and being sent back up to them – with professional performers as bearers of the sacred flame – is to be found in every civilisation.” This very belief has made various kinds of classical music – and musicians – vulnerable.

A few years ago I thought of writing a similar book. I set my Google search to deliver up articles about classical music wherever they appeared. The result was a frankly alarming cascade of laments from around the world. People reported their fear that local forms of ‘classical music’ were fading away. Sometimes there was a ray of hope in the form of an initiative to keep classical traditions alive by setting up after-school clubs to teach the music and the instruments to children. But equally often there was no after-school club, just an interview with an elderly master of an instrument that nobody else in the village knew how to play.

I started to keep notes on countries where ‘classical music’ was endangered, but the list became long and I began to realise that the reasons for the situation were too varied and complex for a non-expert like me to explain. But the whole picture is still of great interest to me, so I am glad that ‘The other classical musics’ has been published, even if I felt sober after reading the end of Michael Church’s article:

“Folk musics will continue to burst forth as they always have done. But with classical music, what we have may be all we’ll get, so we should treasure it.”

Talking about Beethoven

Posted by Susan Tomes on 11 October 2015 under Concerts  •  Leave a comment

IMG_20151011_163620064[1]On Tuesday 13 October at 1pm I’m giving a lecture-recital about Beethoven’s opus 109 piano sonata at the Brunton Theatre in Musselburgh, on the edge of Edinburgh.

Preparing for this event has taken an embarrassingly long time. Practising the sonata itself is one thing, but talking about it is another. Furthermore, talking about it, followed by performing it from memory, is a daunting combination of things. A neurologist once told me it’s hard to switch instantly from left-brain (speech and language) to right-brain (creativity, music etc) activities.

The music of Beethoven’s ‘late period’ is famously impossible to put into words, because in this period of profound deafness he found a ‘soundworld’, a world of the imagination and an exploration of the spirit which went beyond anything he’d written when he could still hear people playing their instruments, or even hear himself playing the piano. As a listener you can feel what it means, but it’s very hard to analyse the effect of his late music. Nevertheless, there are ways of talking about these works; one can discuss some of the ideas and challenges they present to the pianist, as well as exploring some of the influences on Beethoven (for example, the music of Bach) when he composed the work.

Ultimately the music will have to speak for itself, for as Mendelssohn wisely said,“The thoughts which are expressed to me by music that I love are not too vague to be put into words, but on the contrary, too precise.”

Come along on Tuesday lunchtime if you can!

Home from Prussia Cove

Posted by Susan Tomes on 5 October 2015 under Concerts, Inspirations, Travel  •  Leave a comment

IMG_20150925_094153292_HDRI haven’t written anything here for a while because I’ve been away at the International Musicians’ Seminar ‘Open Chamber Music’ in Prussia Cove, Cornwall. We had a week of rehearsals in Prussia Cove (see photo), and then eight of us did a week of touring, giving five concerts around the south of England: Truro, Bristol, Wimborne St Giles, Cambridge and finally Wigmore Hall in London. Apart from anything else, the tour allowed us to meet some delightful hosts and to stay in some exceptional private houses. All our concerts were great experiences, particularly the one in Wigmore Hall whose acoustics, piano, audience and sense of heritage combine to make a memorable setting.

A week of IMS chamber music in Prussia Cove is always a special experience, though it also seems to be an astonishing opportunity for the common cold to wreak havoc on a group of musicians working, eating and sleeping in the same place for a week. Every year, people seem to go down like ninepins. This time, when we went on tour, four of the eight people were suffering from ‘the Prussia Cove cold’, which made touring that much more stressful for them. I was impressed by how stoical they were about all the performances and the late dinners and late nights.

When we are in Cornwall I am always fascinated by how the natural environment, plus the company of like-minded musicians, inspires people to wax philosophical. Already on my first day there, as I fell into step with another player walking back after a rehearsal to the cottage where we were staying, my companion spoke about the passage of time, how it affects one’s perception, how valuable its effects can be, how it is expressed in music, and a number of related observations which I very much doubt would have been uttered in our usual urban contexts with their sense of anonymity and hurry.

The whole fortnight was like that. Everyone, including me, seems relieved to be in the kind of company where there are likely to be sympathetic ears for, and good responses to, anything you feel like saying about life or art. In the case of the eight of us who went off on the tour afterwards, the same spirit prevailed. Despite the boxes of tissues and the unpoetic environment of the minibus, we kept talking. This is one of the things I most value about the Prussia Cove experience.

Richard Tauber sings Léhar

Posted by Susan Tomes on 16 September 2015 under Concerts, Inspirations  •  2 Comments

A reader has reproached me for not including the classic Richard Tauber recording in my previous blog post about different versions of Léhar’s aria ‘Dein ist mein ganzes Herz’.

He points out that the composer actually wrote with Tauber’s voice in mind, so mine was obviously a crucial omission. Here is Richard Tauber’s thrilling version from the 1930s.