Snow and cancellations

Posted by Susan Tomes on 3 March 2018 under Concerts  •  1 Comment

We’re in the grip of bitter winter weather. For several days it’s felt as if the country has  ground to a halt while ‘The Beast from the East’ roars around us. My inbox is full of mail from fellow free-lancers who, like me, have had concerts cancelled because of the snow and the dangerous travel conditions.

It makes one very aware of the fragility of the free-lance life.  Not only is the concert cancelled, but the fee disappears too. A nice concert organiser will try to find a replacement date later in the season, but often it’s not possible for a myriad practical reasons.

I found myself saying to a neighbour, ‘It’s such a shame – I had done so much work for that concert. In fact, the only bit of the work I hadn’t done was to play the concert itself.’  ‘How interesting!’ he said. ‘I thought the concert was the work.’

Well, it is work, of course, but any concert is the culmination of day-by-day practice, learning of new music, organising rehearsals with other musicians, gradually bringing a programme up to performance standard so that we look and feel as serene as possible on stage. It’s like this for all conscientious musicians, perhaps especially for pianists. Most of the work is in the preparation. The concert itself is like the fairy on the Christmas tree. It’s the thing that people admire, but it’s the last item to be added. When a concert is cancelled at short notice, it feels jarring.

Years ago, my group Domus gave a concert which called for an unusual amount of jumping through hoops: learning new music by special request, travelling back and forth to rehearse, getting ourselves to a rural location half a day’s journey away for the concert. After the concert, as we prepared to drive home in the dark, the treasurer came backstage to give us a cheque (to be divided between five of us). As he handed it over he said with a thin smile, ‘Not bad for two hours’ work’.

From time to time I still think of it and hope that most people realise that a concert is not just “two hours’ work”, but two hours at the apex of a big pyramid.

5-star ‘Winterplay’ review in The Scotsman

Posted by Susan Tomes on 12 February 2018 under Concerts, Reviews  •  1 Comment

Winterplay – Beethoven concert, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

‘The dark days of February have been indelibly brightened by Winterplay, a new weekend chamber music festival curated by pianist Susan Tomes. With workshops for children and concerts featuring teenage talent and internationally acclaimed musicians, the festival aims to encourage more people to play, and listen to, chamber music.

In Saturday night’s Beethoven concert, Tomes, with violinist Erich Höbarth and cellist Philip Higham, gave an exemplary demonstration of ensemble playing at the highest level. In the ‘Archduke’ Trio in B flat, all three instruments were perfectly in balance, echoing each other’s turn of phrase and expression with precision and eloquence. The musicians beautifully interwove Beethoven’s intricate themes and captured his mysterious chromatic forays into modernism in the scherzo, which haunt the finale like a message from the future.

Tomes chose two sonatas Beethoven wrote at about the same time as the ‘Archduke’ trio to set it in context. The Sonata for piano and cello in C major, opus 102 no 1, with its sweeping cello lines juxtaposed with piano passages of the utmost delicacy, also show Beethoven pushing at the boundaries of conventional form. Like a couple who finish each other’s sentences, Tomes and Higham expertly picked up the run-on phrases in the finale.

There was much to enjoy in the superb interplay between Tomes and Höbarth in the Sonata for piano and violin in G major, opus 96, especially in the sublime Adagio. The pair navigated the tricky theme and variations with alacrity, showing the fun side of chamber music.’   *****  The Scotsman, 12.2.18

Scotsman Magazine article about Winterplay

Posted by Susan Tomes on 31 January 2018 under Concerts  •  1 Comment

It’s just ten days now until the Winterplay mini-festival of chamber music in the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh. My tally of organisational emails has probably doubled since I last reported that I had written 568 emails relating to the festival – and of course I was only able to search for the ones that contained the word ‘Winterplay’! So in reality there are probably thousands.

Who knew that one had to consider such things as the ingredients of biscuits for workshop participants, permission to take rehearsal photos which might include young people, how to transport large instruments and unload them at the hall without getting a parking ticket, or how to find a local restaurant which will serve food to concert participants after 9.30pm? I’m now longing for the musical part of the project to get going, so that I can remember what all this is actually about.

Last Saturday there was a very nice article about Winterplay in The Scotsman magazine by senior music critic Ken Walton. It didn’t go online until today, but if you click on the link you can read the interview.

‘Speaking the Piano’ – my new book, due out in June

Posted by Susan Tomes on 22 January 2018 under Books, Inspirations  •  1 Comment

I have a new book, Speaking the Piano, due out in June from Boydell Press.

My previous four books are about performance. This new one is about my experiences of learning and teaching (though performance sneaks in too). The title was inspired by a remark of Artur Schnabel’s teacher, Leschetitzky, to the effect that he ‘must learn to speak the piano’.

‘Speaking the Piano’ is not a tutor book or a method, but I describe the approaches of some of the fascinating teachers I’ve studied with, and I also talk about some of my own experiences when teaching.

Why write such a book? The idea came to me when reading about the struggle of music educators to keep music on the national agenda. Many children now don’t have the opportunity to study music to any depth. Sometimes they have problems obtaining instruments, which can be expensive. In some areas, instrumental lessons are only available as a costly add-on. Music has been downgraded on the curriculum in many schools and as time goes by, the effects feed through. Friends who run choirs and orchestras at college level and above have described the increasing difficulty of recruiting young musicians with enough expertise and practice in sight-reading to be able to tackle great repertoire on little rehearsal. It often strikes me that the kind of music I love best can only be played if there are enough people with the instrumental skills required. What if the skills are allowed to fade away?

I started to think of the interesting lessons I’ve had, in different countries and across different genres from classical to jazz. Taken together they seem to point up the value of in-depth study. Certainly I would not have been able to develop high-level performing skill without access to those ingenious teachers with their insistence on the importance of music and their focus on what it means and how to communicate it. I decided to set down some of my recollections, of teaching and of being taught.

Winterplay, Queen’s Hall, 10-11 Feb

Posted by Susan Tomes on 12 January 2018 under Concerts, Musings  •  3 Comments

Just a month now until Winterplay, my mini-festival of chamber music in the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh. The weekend of six events is designed to bring in listeners of all ages. We start on the morning of 10 Feb with a children’s ‘music and movement’ workshop run by Dalcroze expert Monica Wilkinson, who will lead a group of seven- to ten-year-olds in musical games based on themes from Schubert’s Trout Quintet, which will be played in the final concert.

We have a young musicians’ showcase with music by Schumann and Saint-Saens performed by talented students from St Mary’s Music School. And on Saturday we have a pre-concert talk called ‘Unpicking the Classical’ by Robert Philip who will talk about some of the ways that Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert created their wonderful effects.

We also have three concerts featuring two outstanding string players, Austrian violinist Erich Höbarth and Scottish cellist Philip Higham, playing with me in programmes of duo sonatas and piano trios including Beethoven’s Archduke Trio and Schubert’s B flat trio. For the final work we’ll be joined by violist Jessica Beeston and double bassist Nikita Naumov for Schubert’s Trout Quintet.

In recent weeks I’ve found myself reflecting on a remark made by a colleague who said that people think a career in music is all about music, whereas in fact most of your time is devoted to admin. (I looked the other day to see how many separate emails I had written on the subject of Winterplay – so far there are 586, with a month still to go. And before you ask, a mass mailing is counted as 1! ) It’s astounding how much there is to attend to behind the scenes. As a freelance musician I’ve always known this, but when you’re organising a festival you basically get up each day with a list of tasks and finish the day having crossed off lots of items but added even more as a result.

All of which means that, with luck, stepping out on stage with Erich and Philip for the first concert on 10 February will feel like a delightful liberation. Only music to think about!