Cerne Abbas Music Festival 2016

Posted by Susan Tomes on 7 September 2016 under Concerts, Inspirations, Travel  •  2 Comments

dsc02956I’m back from the 26th annual festival of the Gaudier Ensemble in Dorset. Over the years this gathering of chamber music specialists from around Europe has come to feel quite special. As our lives have become increasingly complicated, it feels remarkable that each year the same people are able to find a week to converge on the English countryside to rehearse and give four days of concerts in the lovely old church of Cerne Abbas. (In the photo, some of us are rehearsing one of the Mozart piano concertos which the composer suggested could be done with single strings instead of an orchestra.) I wasn’t there at the very beginning of the festival 26 years ago, but even I have been taking part for 24 years!

It also feels quite special that many members of the audience have been attending our concerts for quarter of a century. They often come up to us and recall individual concerts from years ago, commenting on things that we’d forgotten. ‘The year the lights went out.’ ‘The year we all cried during the late-night concert.’ ‘The year you forgot your concert clothes and had to borrow things from people in the village!’ As I survey the audience from my position on stage I relish seeing the familiar faces of people who’ve made the effort once again to be there. They too sometimes travel from far afield to hear our concerts – not just from other parts of England but from other countries.

Amongst the musicians, the conversation kept circling back to Brexit. The players from outside the UK are still baffled by the UK’s decision. Though we were all gathered together once again from our various nations, we Brits did feel subtly different on this occasion. We were glad to have wonderful European chamber music to unite us.

The chance to do a run of concerts

Posted by Susan Tomes on 25 August 2016 under Concerts, Musings  •  3 Comments

On Tuesday the Guardian had an article about the growing number of stand-up comedians who bring a ‘work in progress’ to the Edinburgh Fringe instead of a fully-developed show. During their run, which could be anything up to three weeks, they ‘develop’ the show, which goes on to tour elsewhere. Sometimes this ‘in-progress’ status is reflected in a cheaper price; sometimes not. Their audiences are big and loyal enough that they’ll pay good money to hear something still being tweaked.

I looked through the 400+ pages of the Fringe brochure to see how comedy runs compare to classical concerts. The difference was striking. Compare the stand-up comedian to the solo pianist. Typically the comedian will perform the same show night after night in the same venue. The pianist, however, will have a single concert date. There are variants: sometimes a group of musicians will present daily concerts, but conscientiously varying the permutations of performers and the programme (as happens also at most music festivals). But if you study either the Edinburgh International Festival brochure or the Fringe brochure it’s clear that the typical concert happens once only.

Why is music so different from theatre? Why does a visiting orchestra come for one night while a visiting theatre company stays for two weeks? There’s a huge mismatch between the amount of preparation that goes in to a single concert and the moment of performance. In that respect music is like the Olympics, where, as we’ve been constantly reminded of late, four or more years of training culminates in a burst of high-profile competition. For the classical solo or chamber musician, too, the single concert is just the outward and visible sign of an awful lot of private practice.  Yes, they may have the chance to play the programme elsewhere, but maybe not for a while, and when they do they’ll have to prepare it all over again. Admittedly, touring offers a chance to repeat the same programme in different cities, but touring is only an occasional thing for most musicians. Apart from the theatrical genres of opera and stage musicals, classical musicians have no equivalent of the theatrical ‘run’.

Therefore every concert is a unique chance to make your mark, and every classical performer is obsessed with the fact. If you play less than your best on this one night, you may never be invited back. This fact shapes most musicians’ lives. I can’t even imagine going on stage in front of the paying public with a programme advertised as ‘work in progress’. If I want to try out a concert programme, I do so in private and for free.

Would I prefer a long run of concerts and the chance to try stuff out over several weeks, with the audience’s agreement that I can experiment? I can hardly even imagine it because my professional life has been organised along such utterly different lines. Has any musician tried it, and if so, what was the result? I’d love to hear.

Edinburgh International Book Festival

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 August 2016 under Books, Concerts  •  2 Comments

DSC02912On a night when the brilliant Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov was playing at the Usher Hall as part of the Edinburgh Festival, it was not to be expected that any piano fans would still be available to come to the Edinburgh Book Festival to hear my talk, which clashed directly with the Usher Hall concert. Fearing disappointment, I deliberately stayed out of the way in the Authors’ Yurt before my talk, and didn’t venture out to see how many people were in the queue. So it wasn’t until my interviewer Sheena McDonald swished back the curtain as we entered the Studio Theatre that I saw hundreds of friendly-looking people sitting in the audience. What a nice surprise! I even quite enjoyed playing several little pieces on a digital piano to punctuate the talk. And, as Sheena had predicted, there were plenty of intelligent questions from the audience when we got to the Q&A. The questions continued as I sat signing books in the Signing Tent afterwards. Altogether a good experience. Thank you, Edinburgh Book Festival audience!


Classical music post-Brexit

Posted by Susan Tomes on 26 July 2016 under Daily Life, Inspirations, Musings, Travel  •  1 Comment

This morning there was a discussion on Radio 4 about the response of the arts in the UK to the Brexit vote. Contributors rightly said that there is much we can and must do to understand who we are, what are the social issues facing us, how can we forge a constructive identity in the future? We must listen (they said) to what people are saying and reflect it, bring it alive through metaphor and portrayal, suggest paths through the maze we appear to be in.

Many of the contributors were from the world of writing and theatre, where these topics can be – and are already being – addressed head-on by the UK’s talented writers and actors. It’s easier to discuss and diagnose social ills if you can use satire and poetry, role-play and humour. In that respect, poets and playwrights at least have an obvious means of pondering our troubled situation.

As I listened I wondered where that leaves UK classical musicians. Abstract music cannot directly address the political issues of the day in the same way that words can. It is transcendent – which is its unique quality, but also one that in an unsympathetic climate can make it appear ‘out of touch’. Our position is somewhat specialised: our core repertoire, and the core of every conservatoire syllabus, is the historical music of central European composers. (Yes, there are many fine British composers past and present, but their music is not the backbone of our repertoire.)

We’re immersed in the inexhaustible music of Bach and Beethoven and Schumann and Brahms, Mozart and Haydn and Schubert, Vivaldi and Verdi and Puccini, Dvorak and Janacek, Debussy and Ravel and Fauré (to take just some obvious examples). They were German, Austrian, Italian, Czech, French. Our lives have been harnessed to European music since we started our training as children. Most classical musicians have studied, lived or worked (and indeed loved, married and had children) in other European countries, taking it for granted (for the past 40 years) that the whole of Europe was ‘our patch’.

So we all desperately want to keep open the bridges to Europe and its music. This isn’t going to be easy as the UK struggles to cut its ties to the EU. Of course we remain geographically close to mainland Europe. We’ll still be able to travel – with some added administrative and financial hurdles – but it isn’t going to feel quite the same. It already doesn’t. We’re hearing that the Erasmus study scheme, which for 30 years has allowed UK musicians to study at European universities, cannot be guaranteed beyond 2017 for UK applicants. ‘Access to Europe’ will be a step further away.

Classical musicians don’t want to feel a step further away. Nor do we want European classics to feel a little bit more distant from anyone. Our mission now must surely be to make sure that in the movement away from the EU we do not lose our ties to European music.  We must fight for it and make sure that it’s made available to people in all walks of life, particularly young people. Such schemes already exist and many musicians are involved in them. But they have been based on the underlying assumption that we are part of the EU. Now they must acquire an urgent sense of keeping those European bridges open and using music to help young people cross them.

What’s in a title?

Posted by Susan Tomes on 16 July 2016 under Concerts, Musings  •  14 Comments

I haven’t written much recently because I seem to have turned into a ‘news junkie’ following the UK’s vote to Brexit. I did write a blog post about Brexit, but it attracted no responses so I went back to reading newspapers and law blogs. Many other music organisations have since published their own statements of concern and alarm about the effect of Brexit on the world of classical music. So I’m leaving the topic aside unless there’s any indication that readers want to join in.

The other day, I was listening to a Scottish radio station while working in the kitchen. It was a programme of folk music – reels, strathspeys, old bagpipe melodies and so on. Once again I was struck by the delightful titles of these old tunes, some of which seem almost too dramatic for the plain little tunes they are harnessed to: ‘The Unjust Incarceration’. ‘The Lament for the Sword’. ‘The Tune of Strife’. ‘Grain in Hides and Corn in Sacks’. ‘The Flame of Wrath for Squint Peter’. ‘I return no more’. ‘I am proud I play a pipe’. And my long-standing favourite, the classic pibroch melody ‘Too Long in This Condition’. What a range of interpretations this summons up!

As I was listening to a dance winningly called ‘The Burnt Potato’, I found myself wishing that classical music had adopted the same approach to its titles. I’ve long thought that the neutral titles of classical music are part of what’s now called ‘its image problem’. Now that music fans have got used to the colourful titles of today’s pop songs and albums, it’s perhaps hard for them to feel curious about somebody’s ‘Symphony no. 2’ or ‘Etude in F sharp minor’, their Concerto K488, their Invention in C minor or their ‘Sonata in A flat opus 110’.

Of course, to those who know and love the music, the title is nothing more than an identifier. Why should the title matter when the music is a whole world?

But these days when writing down the titles of works for concert programmes, I’ve often wished that instead of writing ‘Prelude opus 39 no 2’ or whatever, I could write ‘The Burnt Potato’. Or perhaps ‘The Crispy Aubergine’, or ‘The Handful of Thyme’. Maybe ‘The Path through the Labyrinth’.

Yes, there are some classical pieces with great titles. Janacek’s ‘Intimate Letters’. Debussy’s Preludes for piano: ‘The amphitheatre by moonlight’; Liszt’s ‘Years of Pilgrimage’. But most of the great works are very sparingly named, according to the custom of the time. It would be fun to be able to re-name them.