Léhar’s aria

Posted by Susan Tomes on 14 September 2015 under Concerts, Musings  •  1 Comment

One of the highlights of Saturday’s ‘Last Night of the Proms’ was Jonas Kaufmann singing ‘Dein ist mein ganzes Herz’ from Franz Léhar’s operetta ‘The Land of Smiles’ (Das Land des Laechelns). Oh my goodness, what a song! So beautifully constructed, such clever and effective use of harmony, such an irresistible sweep. Its wide melodic compass brought home to me how small and unimaginative are many of today’s pop melodies, often gnawing away on just a few notes close to one another.

When it comes to admiring Jonas Kaufmann I’m up there in the front line. He has a commanding presence, he’s gorgeous to watch and his vocal technique is a thing of beauty, but as I listened to the Léhar on Saturday night I couldn’t help wondering if the song didn’t seem a bit … insincere? On the other hand, he was singing in one of the world’s largest concert halls, projecting to an audience of thousands and no doubt keeping in mind a worldwide television audience of millions, many of whom were hoping for Entertainment. How intimate could one expect him to be? The roar of approval at the end was my answer.

Afterwards I found that the song had stuck in my head and refused to go away. It niggled at me until I felt inspired to go and look up some other performances on YouTube. There are quite a few, ranging from Kaufmann himself to Domingo with Villazon and Netrebko in a sensuously theatrical trio. Thrilling vocal artistry and effortless audience appeal from all of them, but again the word ‘insincere’ hovered in the back of my mind. Surely the song isn’t meant to sound quite so … smug?

Then I came across a splendid recording by Fritz Wunderlich, still one of the most beautiful voices I know. This was much more like it!

And even better, to my ears, was a 1929 recording made in the year of the operetta’s Berlin premiere by a singer I’d never heard before, the Austro-Hungarian tenor Joseph Schmidt, who died in 1942 at the age of only thirty-eight. Here was a compelling interpretation which somehow preserved the music’s integrity while being perfectly in style; light yet heartfelt (and what delightful orchestral playing!) It’s a subtle thing, but it seemed to arrange the elements of the performance with a different sense of priorities.

Noisy piano practice

Posted by Susan Tomes on 4 September 2015 under Daily Life, Musings  •  3 Comments

In the admin section of my website, I can see what search terms people are most commonly using. For months now, the most popular search terms have been ‘noisy piano practise in apartment’, ‘neighbour nuisance from piano playing’, ‘how to stop pianist practising nearby’ and the like. As a pianist, I find this disturbing.

Readers have asked why pianists can’t simply go and play the piano in their school or college. But of course that is only possible if you are a student in that situation. Lots of pianists, especially those finished with education, don’t have a piano to practise anywhere but their own home. Which young musician has money to hire a studio for hours every day? And though some have acquired digital pianos with a silent mode, to be used with headphones, most concert pianists wouldn’t dream of using digital pianos instead of the good old acoustic pianos we were trained on. The touch is different, the sound is different, and there’s little point in practising all the time on an instrument quite different from the type of piano you’ll be faced with when you get to the concert venue.

It’s striking that people are so annoyed by the sound of piano practice in an age when unwanted music and high volume levels have never been so prevalent. All day long we are subjected to music blaring from car windows, in shops, workplaces, airports. Diners move tables in cafes and restaurants to get away from hi-fi speakers. Builders play their radios loudly as they work. Thin walls reveal our neighbours’ musical preferences all too clearly. Cinema adverts blast out music at uncomfortable levels. TV documentaries have running musical accompaniments. Even doctors and nurses often have to work to someone’s choice of music in the operating theatre.

We’re expected to be tolerant of other people’s music every hour of the day. So you might expect the sound of piano practice to blend into the general melee, except that the opposite seems to be true: people are less tolerant of piano-playing neighbours than they used to be.

Maybe it’s because people have got used to being able to listen to music ‘silently’ at home, on headphones? Perhaps it’s because more of us live in city flats, at close quarters to our neighbours? Could it be that irritation at piano practice is connected with a lack of familiarity with classical music, and a consequent annoyance at the repetition of sounds that don’t immediately ‘make sense’ or seem tuneful?

Is it that live music has become a rare and peculiar thing? Has recorded music made people intolerant of hearing things tried over and over again in different ways? I don’t know the answer, but I’m struck afresh by how strongly people feel about the ‘unjustifiable’ disturbance caused by neighbours playing the piano.

LCMS review of my book

Posted by Susan Tomes on 28 August 2015 under Books, Reviews  •  2 Comments

Excerpt from a review of my book ‘Sleeping in Temples’, in the newsletter of the London Chamber Music Society (you can download the whole newsletter from their site).

‘I don’t usually ‘judge a book by its cover’, but in this case the cover is a lovely place to start: a reflection? an artwork? water and oil? batik? I’m still not sure what it is, but it’s beautiful and credited as a photograph by the author, the pianist Susan Tomes.

Initially unsure whether the book would be a group of lectures, anecdotes or theories, I ended up feeling I had had a few wonderful conversations, full of humour and insight, a very rewarding read. I should have remembered some of the newspaper articles by the same author, articles not to be skimmed, but read with thought. A wide range of ideas is discussed, and music is seen from both the professional and audience points of view.

As I am ‘audience’ I appreciated this angle, as books on musical topics are often geared towards a highly specialised readership. Tomes shows great affinity with her audience, perhaps dating back to the 1980s when she was a leading member of the piano quartet Domus, which took music to new audiences, performed in a geodesic-dome tent. More recently, as well as being a soloist and playing in various ensembles, she has been the pianist with the Florestan Trio, so her performing life has been incredibly varied.

As an audience we sit for a few hours, enchanted by the ease with which musicians perform for us, maybe comparing the music with our recordings at home or just happily humming along in our head or bowled over by a new composition – but probably vastly underestimating the years of study and the hours of practice required. In many ways the pianist has something of a lonely life, usually practising solo and having to adjust to new instruments in new concert halls. Tomes talks, however, of a ‘solitary paradise’, which can occur when a private rehearse achieves a certain clarity of moment, and only the pianist is privy to this.’ …

This is not a solid, solemn book. Anything but.’

Women composers on the A-level syllabus

Posted by Susan Tomes on 19 August 2015 under Daily Life, Musings  •  3 Comments

17-year-old Jessy McCabe’s petition for more women composers to be  on the A-level music syllabus has been in the news today. It has generated quite a lot of interest and discussion, too. Good for her.

The Independent asked if I had any comments to add, and some of my observations are included in their article (to appear in the paper on Thursday 20 August).

If only there were a simple way to remedy the lack of women composers on the A-level syllabus! But the whole issue is extremely complex, as ‘gender studies’ experts keep reminding us. Women have often composed, but their music has equally often been suppressed by societies which believed it was not women’s ‘proper sphere’ to be creating works of music when they could be minding the children, cooking the dinner, supervising the servants, entertaining their husbands’ friends and business associates, or merely looking decorative. Even fathers, mothers and brothers conspired to convince young female would-be composers that it was unacceptable for a women to ‘expose herself to comment on the platform’, to borrow Oscar Wilde’s phrase. Composing great music takes time, dedication, support of various kinds, and the ability to work peacefully for long periods, undisturbed by demands and distractions. This has hardly ever been possible for women, either then or now.

It’s often pointed out that there are great women writers of past centuries, but writing novels is a little different from writing music. Writing a book is usually a private activity, to be read in private too. Music on the other hand is often written to be performed publicly, sometimes by large numbers of musicians in front of large audiences. That takes the composer into a public realm not considered seemly for women in previous eras.

It wasn’t really until the 19th century that women could begin to hope to have their music published and performed publicly. I’ve learned that Mozart’s sister, Nannerl, was a fine composer but was discouraged by her own family from developing her skills, and in any case she had to give up composing when she married a widower and became responsible for looking after his children. Supposing that Nannerl was in any way as talented as her brother Wolfgang, it’s sad to think about what we’ve lost there.

In Robert Schumann’s diaries there’s an entry where he writes, apparently without irony, that his young wife Clara was really a very promising composer, but unfortunately would not be able to develop her talent because of her domestic duties and responsibilities, ‘as she well knows’.

In 1891 the editor of ‘The Women’s Journal’ tackled the issue of why there were no great female composers. Her comments seem unanswerable, and still depressingly relevant today:

‘When women have had for several centuries the same advantages of liberty, education and social encouragement in the use of their brains that men have, it will be right to argue their mental inferiority if they have not produced their fair share of genius. But it is hardly reasonable to expect women during a few years of half liberty and half education to produce at once specimens of genius equal to the choicest men of all ages.’

The changing status of reviews

Posted by Susan Tomes on 5 August 2015 under Concerts, Musings, Reviews  •  4 Comments

The news that Alex Ross is now the only full-time classical music critic on an American magazine has got me thinking about the changing status of reviews.

Gone are the days when an ‘important’ concert would routinely be reviewed by all the major papers. When I was a young professional I used to walk down to a newsagent’s shop on the morning after a big concert – yes, on the very morning after a concert! – to see what the critics had made of my or my group’s performance. I rifled secretly through the arts pages to see how many papers were worth buying. Often they were all worth buying.

Reviews were very useful as ‘calling cards’ to attract the interest of promoters, festival directors, grant-making bodies and so on. We used to keep stacks of photocopied reviews and send them around. In a profession where there’s no straightforward way to prove your credentials, reviews were the best way we knew.

With the advent of the internet, music websites sprang up and offered their own reviews. Sometimes those were the only reviews of one’s concert. But managers were very snooty about ‘web’ reviews. We were told not to bother sending ‘links’ because ‘nobody would take them seriously’. I remember applying for a foreign work visa and being told that only hard copies of reviews in prestigious newspapers were acceptable proof that one had some reputation as a performer.

That was fine when there were plenty of newspaper reviews to send. But then press coverage of classical concerts started to dwindle at an alarming rate. A year might go by with lots of concerts but no newspaper reviews at all. Debut concerts, premieres and fiendishly clever programming (usually guarantees of press interest) were no longer routinely reviewed. Newspaper reviews sometimes took three, four, five days to appear, by which time everyone had sort of lost interest. Links started to take the place of hard copy reviews.

Now it’s often said that ‘everyone is a critic’. People voice their opinions on blogs, Twitter and Facebook and more. At the time of writing, however, I’m not aware that any arts manager or festival director would take seriously a review or a complimentary remark posted online by marmaladegirl82, dolphins’R’us or the ProppingUpTheBar blog (to make up some examples). We seem to be in a phase where, in the absence of ‘proper’ newspaper reviews, high-status online reviews are acceptable, but punters’ comments are not.

Where’s it all going? Nobody knows for sure. Soon a festival director may merely need to know that your performance garnered 5,347 ‘likes’ on Facebook.