Battle of repertoire

Posted by Susan Tomes on 16 May 2016 under Concerts, Musings  •  5 Comments

BBC Young Musician came to a close last night with the wonderful young cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason being declared the winner after his remarkably mature and thoughtful performance of Shostakovich’s first cello concerto.  His charming, modest response on being asked how he felt about winning will have endeared him to many.

Much as I admired his playing, however, I couldn’t but reflect on the fact that these competitions often come down to a battle of repertoire. I sometimes think the public doesn’t sufficiently realise this. When the requirement is to play a concerto with orchestra, the choice for certain instruments is very limited. For others, the sky’s the limit. How (for example) can one compare the trance-like, purposely meandering saxophone piece ‘Where the Bee dances’ by Michael Nyman with the anger, pain and drama of the Shostakovich cello concerto?

When I listen to recordings on YouTube I often scroll down to see the ‘comments’. Many listeners don’t seem to realise that musicians performing notated pieces can only bring out what’s there in the music. I’m continually surprised by how many people seem to attribute the qualities of the music to the player.  This can work for the player or against them. For example, a pianist playing a Chopin nocturne will be complimented as being ‘deep’ or ‘passionate’. On the other hand, the same person playing something spare and reserved might be described as ‘boring’ or ‘unemotional’ even if they are a player of the highest calibre.

Watching BBC Young Musician last night, I had the feeling that nobody could have played Michael Nyman’s saxophone piece better than Jess Gillam played it. She planned it brilliantly and gave it everything. Yet the piece itself has a deliberately crafted palette of effects, building from a quiet and meandering start to a loud and affirmative finish. As you’d expect from the title, it’s a mesmeric nature-inspired piece. It’s not a human drama of suffering, loneliness, and the determination to endure, as the Shostakovich is. In an ideal world the two would not be compared.

And then there was Richard Strauss’s second horn concerto, a very demanding piece excellently played by Ben Goldscheider. The horn is (I’m told) one of the most difficult of instruments from a technical point of view. The relationship of the mouth and lip to the mouthpiece of the horn is crucial, which is one reason why horn players always adopt a stable position and stay put while they play, because they need very fine lip and breath control. You never see a horn player throwing themselves around like some instrumentalists do. They cannot ‘dance’ or shake their heads tempestuously, no matter how stormy the music. Perhaps that makes them seem uninvolved. At any rate the audience often seems to ‘read’ horn players as slightly remote, even if they are merely focusing.

If comparisons have to be made, how could one create a level playing-field for young musicians? Ideally in such a competition one would stop with the declaration of category winners, or after the semi-final stage with the choice of three different instruments. Then all three finalists could be offered equal promotion and concert opportunities. But as we all know, life ain’t like that and the public loves A Winner.

Could you commission a piece which had to be played by all the finalists no matter what instrument they played? Alas, no, because there is no piece – except for a work consisting of a simple melody line – that would be transferable to every instrumental category. But that would be kind of ridiculous, and wouldn’t allow players to show off what they can do. So how to cope with the fact that some instruments (piano, violin, cello) boast a fabulous repertoire of tear-jerking, titanic concertos while others simply don’t? For it will always be impossible for, say, a percussionist (however good) to melt the audience’s heart as a violinist can with the soaring lines of a great Romantic concerto, the orchestra in gorgeous flow beside them. And naturally it is impossible for juries not to be aware of the audience’s reaction.

I woke up thinking about a handicap system like they have in amateur golf, to allow people of different standards to play against one another without the same people always winning. You want to play Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto in the final? That’ll be a handicap of zero.

BBC Young Musician’s ‘accs’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 May 2016 under Concerts, Musings, Teaching  •  7 Comments

BBC Young Musician is underway on BBC4, and once again the talent and accomplishment of the young players is absolutely admirable. To watch and listen to them is inspiring and gives one great hope for the next generation of classical musicians.

Having said that, I am still vexed by the way that the collaborative pianists are treated. By ‘collaborative’ I mean the pianists who play with the string players, the wind players and the brass players in their respective sections of the competition. A lot of the time they’re performing big sonatas conceived by their composers as equal duos, or indeed as works ‘for piano and violin’ as many composers designated them. Nevertheless in all cases the BBC has chosen to shine an actual spotlight on the string/wind/player and to keep the pianist literally in the shadows. Moreover the pianist is only named in small type at the bottom of the TV screen, their name preceded by the revolting shorthand ‘acc’, meaning ‘accompanist’.

As the American fortepianist Robert Levin brilliantly said when asked on one occasion if he was the accompanist: ‘No, I play the piano and am the pianist. I do not play the accompano.’ All collaborative pianists should memorise this remark and use it when necessary.

Last night I watched the string category final, and I think I’m right in saying that the only pianist whose name was uttered by the presenters was the excellent Isata Kanneh-Mason. That was mainly because she was the sister of cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason (winner of the string category final), and because viewers had seen Isata perform as a solo pianist in a previous competition. The other pianists last night had to be content with their name appearing at the bottom of the TV screen, no matter how important and/or challenging the piano parts were.

Now I understand that this is a tricky issue to resolve in a competition for young musicians still in training. The competition is for individuals, and is to some extent an example of the ‘cult of personality’. These individuals, whose music education has focused so far on their own instrumental mastery, have not yet had time to develop mature working relationships with duo pianists, and in any case the competition is not for duos.

Yet some of the best repertoire for violinists or cellists (for example) comes from the great duo repertoire, often composed by someone who was himself a pianist and who meant the piano part to be central. Musically it makes no sense at all to pick out just one of the players in TV lights while the other plays torrents of arpeggios in the unlit background. For me it’s as if the producers are sticking their hands up and shouting, ‘I don’t get the artistic point!’

The people who wrote this music wanted a give-and-take between the players. Becoming aware of this should be part of musical training. Realising that it is not a ‘soloist’ and ‘accompanist’ situation is essential to artistic maturity. Developing a sensitivity to one’s musical partner and an awareness of how the musical material passes back and forth between the players is a crucial skill for young violinists (etc), yet this skill is rarely referred to in competitions, and does not seem to be a stated requirement. In my view a demonstrable awareness of, and respect for, one’s musical partner should be something the competition is actually looking for.

Music education (and particularly competitions) is full of these unfortunate lopsided examples, and I can see how it happens. But I can’t see how, year after year, despite protests from experienced musicians, nobody addresses the problem. One solution would be for instrumentalists to play either totally solo, or in concertos with orchestra where they are, actually, ‘the soloist’. But that would cut out a vast chunk of fabulous collaborative repertoire. So of course they want to be able to play big duo pieces, and so they should. But they are not ‘the soloist’ in those big duo pieces, and the programme should avoid giving the impression that they are. Because then a whole new generation will go away thinking that only the violinist (or whoever) is ‘the star’, and a new generation of intelligent pianists will decide that collaborative playing is a mug’s game because you never get proper recognition.

The least the BBC should do is to give due credit to the skills of the pianists, highlight the value of their musical contribution, light them properly and speak their names. And stop calling them ‘accompanists’!!

Precision drifting

Posted by Susan Tomes on 4 May 2016 under Inspirations, Musings, Travel  •  Leave a comment

Last week I was in Rome, where I walked into a church one day to hear a group of about twenty nuns chanting an evening service. (I say ‘chanting’ because it wasn’t exactly singing, nor was it exactly speaking, but some melodious hybrid of the two.) There was a small group at the front who sang certain phrases, and then the rest would join in with responses in a pattern repeated many times as we sat there listening. ‘Santa Maria, madre di Dio, prega per noi …. ‘

It was quite fascinating from a musical point of view. First of all, I had never heard the ‘response’ group come in a major third above the others. I’ve heard various intervals used in sacred music, such as fifths and octaves, but never a third. For some reason it sounded curiously modern.

Even more interesting was the way the pitch of the responses ‘drifted’ downwards by a semitone during each repeated phrase. With every entry, the nuns began unerringly on the same note (‘middle C’), but by the end of the phrase they were a semitone lower, and by the end of longer phrases they were sometimes two semitones lower.

At first it seemed as if the ‘drift’ was a natural consequence of the voices tiring. But then I started to notice that the ‘drift’ began at exactly the same point in each phrase. It was repeated enough times that I could actually count the syllables before the drift began. I realised that what seemed accidental was actually very precise (though probably not planned).

It was usually about ten syllables in to the phrase that the drift began, and it never drifted further than one semitone during a short phrase, or two semitones during a longer one. Even the drift from one-semitone-down to two-semitones-down happened at a consistent point in the longer phrase. Then, with the next entry, everyone snapped back to the same razorsharp pitch they started with. Nobody looked at anyone else and there was no-one directing the ‘choir’. It was a perfect example of entrainment, the phenomenon whereby performers synchronise with one another unconsciously. What seemed like drifting was in fact beautifully co-ordinated, like a flock of birds making a slight curve in the air.

‘Reflets dans l’Eau’ played in the BBC Studio

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 April 2016 under Concerts  •  2 Comments

It’s just a week now until my Queen’s Hall solo recital on 25 April at 7.30pm. The programme is called ‘Pioneers of the Piano’ and celebrates some of the composers who wrote in new ways for the piano, or showed it in a different light. I played the programme at home last night for a small group of friends and am now looking forward to performing it in a more generous acoustic.

In the meantime, here’s a clip of me playing one of the pieces from the programme: Debussy’s ‘Reflets dans l’Eau’. I played it live in the BBC Studios in Glasgow when I went in last Friday to talk about the concert on ‘Classics Unwrapped’.

How to listen to everything

Posted by Susan Tomes on 3 April 2016 under Musings  •  2 Comments

I’m reading Ben Ratliff’s ‘Every Song Ever’, an intriguing guide to how to get the most out of the huge range of recorded music now freely available.

If I understand him correctly, he feels that there has been a shift from ‘the composer’ to ‘the listener’ at the top of the musical pyramid. Perhaps this is a similar shift to that put forward by literary theorists some years ago when they proposed that ‘the reader’, not the author, was the prime activist in the reading experience. This seemed to go hand in hand with authors agreeing that when the book left their hands, it took on a life of its own and was no longer ‘theirs’.

Now, because there are such vast swathes of music available for free, and because people have got used to dipping in and out of them, compiling extensive libraries of recorded music from cultures and countries across the world, the person with real power – even creative power – is the listener. They can listen how, when, where, as loudly or softly, as often and with whatever context they like. Of course nobody is trained in how to listen to all the world’s musics, so it makes sense to develop an open-minded way of listening and appreciating that can be applied to any kind of music.

I’m with Ben Ratliff so far. But as a trained classical musician I can’t help blanching when I read on p8 that ‘….understanding Beethoven’s or Bach’s use of melody, harmony, rhythm, tone color and compositional structure might have taught you how to listen well in 1939, when Aaron Copland published his popular book ‘What to Listen for in Music’. … It was an ideal of listening according to an imagined sense of what the composer would have wanted you to understand. But Beethoven and Bach, even combined – and great as they still are – do not prepare or condition you for the range of music that in 2015 is already, or could already be, part of your consciousness.’

I confess that my working life not only was, but still is guided by ‘an imagined sense of what the composer would have wanted me to understand’. I remember once, in a masterclass with György Sebök, asking him if it was ok to ‘make my own sense of’ late Beethoven – for example, by underplaying his extreme contrasts of soft and loud – if I didn’t understand what he was getting at. Sebök replied that by imposing my own limited understanding on Beethoven’s music I might prevent its full meaning from reaching the listener. I accepted this warning, and indeed as time went by I found that there was more to Beethoven’s music than I had been able to grasp as a student.

But according to this new way of placing the listener centre stage, the meaning that the listener derives from any sort of music is the whole point of the exercise. It’s hard to argue against that conclusion. And undoubtedly you can train yourself to listen so closely that any expressive effect – or even lack of expression – becomes interesting. Then it doesn’t matter what sort of music you listen to, because each is as potentially valuable as the next. Nothing has more inherent meaning than anything else. You can get whatever you choose out of anything.

Yet for me, there are limits to the ‘everything is interesting’ approach. I feel it’s also important to acknowledge that some music is more complex, reaches further, elicits a more profound emotional or intellectual response than other kinds. Maybe all music is interesting and enjoyable in its own way – but we need to know how to listen with discrimination, so that we don’t lose touch with exceptional value.